07.13.09

Leahy Announces Intent To Introduce Hate Crimes Amendment To DOD Authorization Bill

Kennedy-Authored Legislation Pending In Senate For More Than A Decade

WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Monday announced his intent to introduce the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill this week.

Leahy joined with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) earlier this year to introduce the legislation, which would broaden federal hate crimes law to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.  Kennedy has a been a long-time advocate of the legislation.

Leahy chaired a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago to examine the legislation, which has been pending in the Senate for more than a decade.  The hearing included testimony from Attorney General Eric Holder, who expressed strong support for the legislation on behalf of the administration.

The hate crimes amendment would improve existing law by making it easier for Federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes of racial, ethnic, or religious violence,” said Leahy.  “Victims will no longer have to engage in a narrow range of activities, such as serving as a juror, to be protected under Federal law.  It also focuses the attention and resources of the Federal government on the problem of crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, which is a long-overdue protection.  In addition, the hate crimes amendment will provide assistance and resources to state, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.”

Kennedy said of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, “This bill is long overdue. Hate crimes are especially poisonous. They are acts of domestic terrorism that target whole communities, not just individuals. This bill will bring greater protection to our citizens and much-needed resources for state and local law enforcement to fight these vicious crimes. Now is the time to stand up against hate-motivated violence and recognize the shameful damage it is doing to our nation. We must not delay passage of this bill any longer.”

More than 40 Senators are cosponsors of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  The Senate overwhelmingly adopted the legislation as an amendment to the defense authorization bill last year, but was stripped from the final legislation during conference.

Summary.  The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act will strengthen the ability of federal, state, local, and tribal governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.  It will strengthen state, local, and tribal efforts by enabling the Justice Department to assist local authorities in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes by authorizing grants to meet the extraordinary expenses often involved in investigating and prosecuting these cases.  It also authorizes grants to prevent and deter hate crimes committed by juveniles.

Hate Crimes Covered.  Existing hate crimes law covers race, color, national origin, or religion, but only where the victim is engaging in one of the following federally protected activities: (1) attending or enrolling in a public school or public college; (2) participating in a benefit, service, privilege, program, facility or activity administered by a state or local government; (3) applying for or working in private or state employment; (4) serving as a juror in a state court; (5) using a facility of interstate commerce or a common carrier; or (6) enjoying public accommodations or places of exhibition or entertainment.  The bill eliminates the outdated “federally protected activities” requirement and expands the federal government’s ability to prosecute crimes targeting victims because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. 

Federal Assistance and Training Grants.  The bill authorizes the Attorney General to provide technical, forensic, prosecutorial and other assistance to state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials for hate crime investigations and prosecutions.  In addition, the Justice Department is authorized to increase personnel to better prevent and respond to allegations of hate crimes.  The bill also authorizes $5 million for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 for Justice Department grants of up to $100,000 to state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials who have incurred extraordinary expenses associated with investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.  Finally, the bill authorizes grants by the Office of Justice Programs to state, local, and tribal programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles, including programs to train local law enforcement officers in identifying, investigating, prosecuting, and preventing hate crimes.

Certification Requirement.  The bill authorizes the federal government to step in when needed, but only after the Justice Department meets the certification process outlined in the bill.  The Justice Department must certify that the state in which the hate crime occurred either does not have jurisdiction; has asked the federal government to assume jurisdiction; a state prosecution has failed to vindicate the federal interest against hate-motivated violence; or a federal prosecution is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.  In other words, rather than take over cases that would normally be pursued at the state or local level, the bill will provide a federal backstop for state and local law enforcement to deal with hate crimes that otherwise might not be effectively investigated and prosecuted, or for which states request assistance.

Collection of Statistics.  Currently, the FBI collects statistics on hate crimes based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation.  This bill increases the federal government’s ability to monitor hate crimes by including statistics on gender and gender identity-based hate crimes, as well as hate crimes committed by juveniles.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
On Introduction of The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009
As an Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill
July 13, 2009

Just moments ago, I left the Judiciary Committee hearing room where we are considering the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.  In considering this historic and well qualified nominee, many Americans may feel that our country has turned a pivotal corner on issues equality and civil rights.  While I hope that Judge Sotomayor’s nomination will unite us as a Nation, I am aware that much still needs to be done to protect the civil rights of all Americans. 

I plan to offer the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009as an amendment to the pending National Defense Authorization BillI thank Senator Collins, Senator Snowe, and the other bipartisan cosponsors for their support.  This measure has long been a priority for Senator Kennedy, and I commend him for his steadfast leadership over the last decade in working to expand our Federal hate crimes laws. 

The amendment I will offer aims to address the serious and growing problem of hate crimes.  Recent events at the Holocaust Museum have made clear that these vicious crimes continue to haunt our country.  This bipartisan measure is carefully designed to help law enforcement most effectively respond to this problem.  It has been stalled for far too long.  The time to act is now.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been pending for more than a decade, and has passed the Senate numerous times.  Despite its long history in the Senate, it continues to draw the same, tired attacks.  Less than two years ago, the Senate passed the hate crimes bill as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill.  It also passed the Senate in 2004, 2000, and 1999. 

Last month, at the request of Senator Sessions and the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, I chaired a hearing on this bill to ensure that it has been adequately discussed and considered, and that there was an opportunity to explore the minor changes that were made to the bill in this Congress.

It is no doubt a testament to the urgency of this legislation that the Attorney General of the United States returned to the Judiciary Committee for our hearing less than a week after appearing before the Committee at an oversight hearing, so that he could testify in support of this important legislation.  We have also heard from state and local law enforcement organizations, all supportive of the measure, and our Committee record includes support letters from dozens of leaders of the faith community and the civil rights community. 

I agreed with Senator Sessions when he commented at the end of the hearing that it was a good hearing with a good exchange of views.  We have now had more than enough process and consideration of this bill, and it is time at last bring it to another Senate vote. 

Last month, shots rang out at the Holocaust Museum, and the alleged gunman was reportedly a known white supremacist and anti-Semite.   This most recent violent attack, just blocks away from the Capitol, has certainly renewed bipartisan interest in immediate passage of strengthened hate crimes legislation.  The sight of stray bullet holes covering the door of the National Holocaust Museum was a jarring reminder right here in Washington that our country must do more.

 
From the horrific slayings of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. during the 1990s, to the tragic murder of Louis Ramirez last year, it has long been clear that we must do more to protect all Americans from these crimes.  The answer to hate and bigotry has to ultimately be found in increased respect and tolerance for all our citizens.  In the meantime, strengthening our Federal hate crimes legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need is a necessary step.

The facts set out in several recent reports show that hate crimes and hate groups remain a major problem.  Last month, the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights released a report finding that “the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually, or nearly one every hour of the day.”  Similarly, a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that hate groups have increased by 50 percent since 2000, from 602 hate groups in 2000, to 926 in 2008. 

The hate crimes amendment would improve existing law by making it easier for Federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes of racial, ethnic, or religious violence.  Victims will no longer have to engage in a narrow range of activities, such as serving as a juror, to be protected under Federal law.  It also focuses the attention and resources of the Federal government on the problem of crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, which is a long-overdue protection.  In addition, the hate crimes amendment will provide assistance and resources to state, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.

Last Congress, this legislation was included in the Department of Defense Authorization bill with the bipartisan support of 60 Senators, and I expect that this year, support for this legislation has increased.  I was disappointed that the hate crimes provision was taken out of that bill in conference, but I hope that Senators on both sides of the aisle can work together this year and help us to finally enact this bipartisan civil rights measure into law.

Since the last Senate vote on hate crimes, we have made some modest changes requested by Federal law enforcement to ensure that the hate crimes laws work as effectively as possible.  We have worked closely with the Justice Department to ensure that we are advancing legislation that is fair, constitutional, and effective in cracking down on brutal acts of hate-based violence. 

This amendment would eliminate obstacles present in past versions that could prevent the introduction of relevant evidence necessary to prove that a hate crime occurred.  It ensures that Federal prosecutors can rely on evidence of limited and relevant additional conduct to prove that the violent act in question was motivated by bias.

It would also strengthen Federal jurisdiction over hate crimes and clarify key certification requirements to allow the Federal government to appropriately support, but not to substitute for, State and local law enforcement.  As a former State prosecutor, respect for local and state law enforcement is important to me.  This hate crimes legislation strikes the proper balance between federal and local interests.  This legislation would strengthen State and local law enforcement and has received strong support from State and local law enforcement organizations across the country, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys’ Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Interfaith Alliance, and more than 300 other law enforcement, civil rights, religious, and other professional organizations. I am placing into the record letters of support from many of these organizations.

This amendment was carefully crafted to respect constitutional limits and differences of opinion.  It will combat acts of violence motivated by hatred and bigotry, but it does not target speech, however offensive or disagreeable, and it certainly does not target religious expression. 

Indeed, the Constitution does not permit us in Congress to prohibit the expression of an idea simply because we disagree with it.  To paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Constitution protects not only freedom for the thought and expression we agree with, but also the freedom for the thought that we abhor.  I am devoted to that principle, and I am confident that this amendment does not contradict it.   

President Obama supports the immediate passage of hate crimes legislation.  In just a few months in office, he has acted to ensure that Federal benefits are awarded more equitably, regardless of sexual orientation.  He has shown through his selection of a nominee for the Supreme Court that he understands that the greatest talent and experience and the highest devotion to the law exist across lines of gender and ethnicity.  Unlike in previous years, our bipartisan hate crimes bill does not face a veto threat because we have a President who understands that crimes motivated by bias are particularly pernicious crimes that affect more than just their victims and those victims’ families. 

Hate crimes instill fear in those who have no connection to the victim other than a shared characteristic such as race or sexual orientation.  For nearly 150 years, we have responded as a Nation to deter and to punish violent denials of civil rights by enacting Federal laws to protect the civil rights of all of our citizens.  The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 continues that great and honorable tradition.  Adoption of this amendment will show, once again, that America values tolerance and protects all of its people.  I urge the opponents of this measure to consider the message it sends when, year after year, we are prevented from enacting this broadly supported legislation.  The victims of hate deserve better.  I hope all Senators will join me in support of this important amendment.  

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