Senate Set To Pass Historic Hate Crimes Legislation


[WASHINGTON -- The Senate is expected to vote later this week on the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced an amendment to include the federal hate crimes provision in the authorization bill during Senate debate in July.  He worked to ensure the provision was included in the final version of the legislation.]

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
On Passage of The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009
In the National Defense Authorization Bill
October 20, 2009

After more than a decade, Congress is finally set to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, and I expect the President to sign it promptly.  I am proud that Congress has come together to show that violence against members of any group because of who they are will not be tolerated in this country.

I thank Senator Collins for cosponsoring the amendment with me.  I commend Senator Levin for working so hard to ensure that this provision would go forward as part of the conference report.  I congratulate the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Reid, for his essential role in this matter. In the House of Representatives, Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Clyburn were similarly instrumental in this enactment.

I also want to take this opportunity to remember Senator Ted Kennedy who provided steadfast leadership on this issue for more than a decade.  I wish he could have been here to see this bill, about which he was so passionate, finally enacted.   I am honored to be able to see it through to the finish for him.  I know it meant a lot to him.  We miss him but his good work goes on.

Earlier this month was the 11th anniversary of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was beaten and killed solely because of his sexual orientation.  Matthew’s parents have worked courageously and tirelessly for this legislation, which aims to ensure that this kind of despicable act will never be tolerated in this country.  The bill was named for Matthew, as well as for James Byrd, Jr., a black man who was killed in 1998 because of his race in another awful crime that galvanized the Nation against hateful violence.  We  appreciate and honor the important contributions of James Byrd’s family as they have  worked hard for this legislation.

Unfortunately, the years since these two horrific crimes have made clear that hate crimes remain a serious and growing problem.  Most recently, the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum showed that these vicious crimes continue to haunt our country.  This bipartisan legislation will help law enforcement  respond more effectively to this problem.

It is a testament to the importance of this legislation that the Attorney General of the United States came to the Judiciary Committee in June to testify in favor of it.  We have been urged to pass this bill by State and local law enforcement organizations, and dozens of leaders in the faith and the civil rights communities.  Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League and my friend, Janet Langhart Cohen, among others, also testified passionately in favor of this legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.  I also very much appreciate the support of Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, who have worked tirelessly to see this legislation passed.

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 June, 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.”  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.

This historic hate crimes provision will 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 are much needed protections.  In addition, this legislation will provide resources to State, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.

In preparing this legislation and moving it through Congress, 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.  It ensures that Federal prosecutors are able to 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, I believe respect for local and State law enforcement is critical.    

This legislation 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  does not target religious expression.   

I wish there had been more Republican support for this important civil rights amendment.  Nonetheless, in the Senate we worked to address bipartisan concerns and issues.  We incorporated Republican amendments mandating guidelines for hate crimes prosecutions, further changing First Amendment protections, and creating a new criminal offense for attacks against service members because of their service.   

I am disappointed that the service members provision contains a mandatory minimum sentence because I believe that mandatory minimum sentences can have unintended and unfortunate effects on sentencing and on our criminal justice system.  However, I was pleased that we were able to limit the provision to one modest mandatory minimum sentence and require the United States Sentencing Commission to study the effect of mandatory minimum sentences.  I am also glad that we were able to pass this bill without adding a new Federal death penalty, which would have needlessly inserted a divisive issue into this legislation.

I want to note that the sponsors and supporters intend with its passage, to authorize Federal investigations and prosecutions of those hate crimes described to the fullest extent permitted by the Constitution.  Section 4707(a) of the defense authorization bill, which creates § 249(a)(2)(B) of the new hate crimes statute, is desired to apply to the full extent of congressional authority under the Commerce Clause.  Similarly, Section 249(a)(1) should be interpreted broadly, to the full extent of Congress’s authority under the Thirteenth Amendment.

Section 4710 of the bill sets out rules of construction for hate crimes legislation.  These rules of construction are meant to be read as a collective whole.  They simply confirm that the statute should be applied consistent with the First Amendment and the Federal Rules of Evidence.  They are not meant to prevent the admission of any evidence that is relevant, consistent with the First Amendment, and otherwise admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, including under Rule 404(b).

President Obama has worked closely with us to facilitate the quick passage of this vital hate crimes legislation.  In his first few months in office, he has acted to ensure that Federal benefits are awarded more equitably, regardless of sexual orientation, and now to ensure that this hate crimes legislation becomes law.  Unlike in previous years, our bipartisan hate crimes bill does not face a veto threat.  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.  I expect the President to sign this legislation without delay.

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 and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 continues that great and honorable tradition.  Passage of this legislation, at last, will show, once again, that America values tolerance and protects all of its people.

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