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National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2010

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, it reflects well upon this body that the Senate late last week voted to include the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill with a strong bipartisan vote. This important legislation has also passed the Senate in 2007, 2004, 2000, and 1999. I am hopeful and optimistic that this time it will make it to the President's desk and be signed into law.

This legislation will help to address the serious and growing problem of hate crimes. The recent tragic events at the Holocaust Museum, on top of many other recent hateful and devastating acts, have made clear that these vicious crimes continue to haunt our country. This bipartisan bill is carefully designed to help law enforcement most effectively respond to this problem. It has been stalled for far too long. The Senate's action last week was the right step and long overdue.

I thank Senator Collins, Senator Snowe, and the other bipartisan cosponsors for their support. I particularly thank Senator Ted Kennedy, for whom this important civil rights measure has long been a priority, and I commend him for his steadfast leadership over the last decade in working to expand our Federal hate crimes laws.

I wish he could have been here for the vote on Thursday, but I know he was proud of what the Senate did. I thank the many staff members who helped with this effort--Roscoe Jones, Joe Thomas, Elise Burditt, Leila George-Wheeler, Matt Smith, Noah Bookbinder, Kristine Lucius, and Bruce Cohen on my staff--as well as the staff for Senator Kennedy--Christine Leonard and Ty Cobb--who worked so hard on this legislation.

I appreciate that Republicans were willing to come to an agreement to let this hate crimes amendment move forward. As part of that agreement, today we vote on several additional related amendments from Senator Sessions.

Senator Sessions proposed an amendment creating a new criminal statute for attacks against U.S. servicemembers. While servicemembers are already appropriately covered by strong legal protections, I agree with the purpose of this amendment, and I appreciate Senator Sessions' willingness to work with us to improve it. I will support this amendment.

Senator Sessions was also willing to work with us on another amendment of his which would require that all hate crimes prosecutions be undertaken pursuant to guidelines promulgated by the Attorney General. With the improvements that we worked out, I am happy to support this amendment as well.

Finally, Senator Sessions proposed an amendment to apply the death penalty to a broad swath of hate crimes. This amendment, as offered, would have applied the death penalty even to cases involving offenses like attempted kidnapping where there was no intent to kill any person. Such a broad application would have clearly violated the Constitution as set out in ruling Supreme Court precedent.

With regard to the death penalty, the Supreme Court recently held that, ``As it relates to crimes against individuals, . . . the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken.''

Whether or not Senators agree with that sentiment, we should not purposefully pass legislation that we know to be unconstitutional. As a result of my criticism, I understand that Senator Sessions will be modifying his amendment, and I appreciate that.

Adding an expansive death penalty provision to hate crime statutes would also add new costs to enforcement since death penalty cases are consistently far more expensive and difficult for the government to litigate. Those increased costs could reduce the number of important hate crime investigations and prosecutions the government could conduct.

We should be facilitating more hate crime investigations and prosecutions, not restricting the number the government can bring. I should also note that many proponents of hate crimes legislation, particularly in the House, as well as other influential House Members, strongly oppose the death penalty.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has written us to oppose this death penalty amendment, and I know several of my fellow Senators share my concerns with this amendment.

Senator Kennedy has proposed a further amendment which would add important guidelines about when the death penalty could be used. I support this commonsense measure.

I hope all Senators will join me in doing everything we can to ensure that effective, meaningful hate crimes legislation can be signed into law this summer.


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