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Public Statements

Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. CORNYN. Mr. President, this Chamber has the rare opportunity to pass legislation that would improve public safety, help secure justice for rape victims, and help get dangerous criminals off the street. We could very easily pass this legislation with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, just as we have on two prior occasions. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues have decided to turn the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization into a partisan football, and I will explain that in a minute. As a result, not only are they dividing us when we ought to be united in the cause against violence against women, they are ultimately jeopardizing support for women's shelters, counseling programs, and legal services. They are also making it harder to do something I have committed to do for the last couple of years, and that is to reduce the rape kit backlog, which is a national scandal of the highest order.

Ever since it became law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has benefited from strong bipartisan support. As I have said, it has twice been reauthorized by a unanimous Senate vote. I never thought the day would come when this issue would become politicized, but I am afraid it has.

I believe it is very important, and all of us who care deeply about this issue and this legislation must understand that this should remain a bipartisan cause. Just ask Carol Bart, Lavinia Masters, Lennah Frost, or Mica Mosbacher, all of whom have courageously shared with me and all of us their personal stories in the hopes of helping other victims against sexual assault. It has been my tremendous honor to get to know these women, and I admire their courage and willingness to share what is a profoundly personal trauma in their effort to help other would-be victims. I am proud to say each of them has endorsed and supported the SAFER Act, which is the rape kit backlog element in the underlying bill we are considering. The SAFER Act would make it much easier for State and local law enforcement officials to reduce the rape kit backlog, which may be as large as 400,000 untested rape kits. These rape kits are composed of DNA evidence collected at a crime scene, which then can be compared against an FBI database to get a hit or identification of a sample from an unknown assailant against a known criminal whose name is on the FBI database. When you get a hit, that provides conclusive proof of identity of the assailant where they may not otherwise be known or captured.

This reform is not controversial. In a much less polarized environment, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act would be a slam dunk. In today's polarized Washington, it seems that no issue is immune from political gamesmanship.

The problem with the underlying bill is simple: It denies constitutional rights to certain American citizens. I am stunned that some of my colleagues are okay with this. I am stunned that some self-proclaimed civil liberties organizations apparently have no objection to a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution. They believe somehow that Congress could legislate away constitutional rights. It cannot. The Constitution is the fundamental law of the land and no act of Congress can violate the Constitution and stand. Constitutional rights should not and are not negotiable. They are not bargaining chips in a Washington parlor game. They are permanent, and they are sacrosanct. Here is the good news. There is an obvious compromise that would resolve this dispute and guarantee bipartisan support for reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

Senator Leahy's bill, the underlying bill, would let certain U.S. citizens be prosecuted for domestic violence in Native American tribal courts without their full constitutional rights and without an ability to pursue an appeal in the Federal court system. Once again, we all understand this. Congress cannot legislate away constitutional rights. This bill, if passed in its current form, would purport to do that.

The solution is easy. I have cosponsored an amendment with Senator Crapo, who was the original cosponsor of the underlying bill, and Senator Alexander, that would let Native American tribal courts prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence, provided that all non-Indians were given their full constitutional protection, as provided by the Bill of Rights, and would be allowed appeals from a verdict in the Federal court system.

In other words, if you compare our amendment with the language in Senator Leahy's underlying bill, we would both give Native American officials the exact same authority to prosecute people who commit domestic violence on Indian reservations. The difference between our proposal and the underlying bill is ours would not violate the Constitution. It would not deny American citizens the protection of the Bill of Rights, but the underlying bill does that. It denies American citizens accused of crimes of domestic violence in tribal courts their constitutional rights.

Surely we all share the same goal of protecting victims of domestic violence, no matter who they are, but in this case they are people who are victims of domestic violence committed on tribal lands. We all want to do everything we can to protect Native American women from violent crime. We can do exactly what Indian leaders are asking us to do without violating the Constitution. It is just that simple. In the end, the choice is pretty basic: Either we will uphold the Constitution or we won't.

I urge my colleagues to extend bipartisan support for this bill and the message it sends to America and particularly to the victims of sexual assault. I would ask them to put that unified message ahead of their desire to divide us by denying, in the underlying bill, the constitutional rights to those accused of domestic violence on tribal lands who are not themselves members of the tribe.

I would remind all of us of the oath we have taken as U.S. Senators to uphold and defend the Constitution. I would urge them to remember everything they have said, we have all said, in the past about the importance of upholding civil liberties.

Finally, I wish to say a few words to you, victims advocacy groups that have worked so long and hard to pass the VAWA in 1994, and have worked so hard to see it reauthorized. My message to you is this: I am grateful for your efforts, and I share your desire to make this law even better and even stronger than it is today. Make no mistake, the Violence Against Women Act is being held hostage by constitutional language in the underlying bill, but we can fix it. All it takes is the will and desire of Senators in this Chamber to work together to fix it so that it becomes constitutional, so that it becomes effective.

I have done everything in my power to promote a reasonable constitutional compromise. Unfortunately, there are those who have chosen to put politics ahead of their desire to actually come to a solution on this issue. That is unfortunate, that is regrettable, but that is the state of play.

I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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