Editor’s note: The following was delivered at Georgetown University Law Center on Wednesday morning.
By Sen. Patrick Leahy
It is great to see so many students here today and to be back at Georgetown Law Center. I look forward to these visits to discuss the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is where I was taught – in great, elaborate detail, I might add – about the values embodied in the Constitution, about the rule of law, and about the majesty of our legal traditions. This is where I learned to argue and appreciate different sides of complicated legal issues and to search for solutions. I never imagined then that I would be able to work on the broad range of legal and constitutional issues that come before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I am looking forward to again chairing the Committee in the new 113th Congress, because the Judiciary Committee works on many of the most compelling questions – and often the most fascinating questions – that touch the daily lives of 300 million Americans. On issues ranging from freedom of the press to the right to bear arms, we are tested and we are privileged to consider legislation and nominations affecting many of our most pressing challenges – as well as our fundamental rights, and our most basic freedoms.
I expect that the Judiciary Committee will devote most of our time this spring working to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Few topics are more fundamental to who and what we are as a nation than immigration. Immigration throughout our history has been an ongoing source of renewal of our spirit, our creativity and vitality. From the young students brought to this country by their parents seeking a better life for them, to the hardworking men and women who play vital roles supporting our farmers, innovating for our technology companies, or creating businesses of their own, our nation relies on immigrants. We must find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change, which should include a path for citizenship. Tackling this complex issue should inspire us to uphold the fundamental values of family and of hard work and of fairness. Next month we will begin this national discussion in the full Senate Judiciary Committee with public hearings. Although I expect there will be different views on many pieces of the reform effort, I hope that in the end we can honor those who came before us from distant lands in search of freedom and opportunity.
Two weeks from today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin examining possible remedies for tragedies like last month’s shootings in Newtown. The questions we face about our national gun policy extend beyond the tragic results of mass murder; they extend to how we care for those with mental illness, how we manage the exposure of children to violence in popular media, and simple matters of gun safety. In our hearings, we will ensure an open forum for a constructive discussion about how we can better protect our communities from mass shootings, while respecting the fundamental right to bear arms recognized by the Supreme Court. Like many other gun owners, I believe that we should strengthen our federal laws to combat gun trafficking and ensure that those seeking to purchase guns do so with background checks – but this is only part of what is needed. As President Obama has made clear, no single step can end this kind of violence. But the fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help. I look forward to reviewing the proposals the President is announcing today and the Judiciary Committee beginning that discussion with the first of several hearings on this topic.
I will keep the Committee’s focus on partnerships that protect our first responders, like the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act. I am also committed to reauthorizing the lifesaving Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant program, which I was proud to author in 1998 with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and which recently provided its one-millionth vest to a state law enforcement agency. First responders are flesh-and-blood lifelines to each and every one of us. They run into buildings like Sandy Hook Elementary out of a sense of duty. We count on them, and they need to be able to count on us. Some argue that federal assistance to first responders is somehow unconstitutional. They are wrong and should stop stalling these important initiatives.
In the coming months, the Judiciary Committee will continue to examine our criminal justice system and work to promote national standards and oversight for forensic labs and practitioners. We must forge improvements that far more effectively identify and convict people guilty of crimes, while avoiding the too-common tragedy of convicting the innocent. We will also examine fiscal issues related to our high rate of imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentences to make sure that we are conserving law enforcement resources, while prioritizing approaches that most effectively reduce crime and target violent offenders.
The Violence Against Women Act
The first legislation I plan to move in the new Congress is the Violence Against Women Act. Last year the Senate passed my bipartisan bill, but House leaders refused to agree to protect some of the most vulnerable victims of domestic violence and rape. Like so many other worthy efforts, renewing VAWA suffered from obstructionism that has seeped into the legislative process.
Each of us probably knows victims of domestic or sexual violence. I still have nightmares from the domestic violence crime scenes I saw as a prosecutor in Vermont. Today, as we struggle to overcome unprecedented obstacles to renew and improve VAWA, I think of victims like Carmen Tarleton, from Thetford, Vermont. Five years ago, Carmen’s estranged husband broke into her home, beat her with a baseball bat, and threw industrial-strength lye into her face and across her body. Her doctors said that she had suffered “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer.” It nearly blinded her and today she is disfigured and still in pain. Yet, she is now courageously sharing her experience to help others. Stories like Carmen’s remind me of this: Every day that we do not pass the VAWA bill comes at a human cost.
We will make VAWA our first priority this year. And we will again try to reauthorize our Trafficking Victims Protection Act to counter modern day slavery, which is shockingly common around the world, and even here in the United States. Unfortunately, a single senator prevented Senate passage last month, before the Congress adjourned. I hope we can work on a bipartisan basis to overcome this obstruction in the coming months.
Defending civil liberties and privacy
In addition to these important legislative items, the Judiciary Committee must continue to exercise oversight when it comes to our nation’s counterterrorism efforts to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. This Congress we will examine the constitutional and legal issues implicated by the administration’s use of drones abroad, but my concerns go beyond just the use of lethal force against suspected terrorists. I am concerned about the growing use of drones by federal and local authorities to spy on Americans here at home. This fast-emerging technology is cheap and could pose a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans. It is another example of a fast-changing policy area on which we need to focus to make sure that modern technology is not used to erode Americans’ right to privacy, and this will be the subject of hearings this Congress.
We make a tragic mistake thinking that merely giving up more and more of our privacy will make us safer. It will not. Security and liberty are both essential in a free society, and we cannot forsake one for the other.
The public’s right to know
I will continue to fight for transparency that keeps the government accountable to the people. Few of us agree with everything done or spoken under protection of our freedom of the press, but as a son of Vermont printers, you can bet that I have serious concerns about the press being shut out. While I oppose the disclosure of properly classified government information, I will also work to make sure that legislative efforts to prevent classified leaks does not infringe upon our fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press.
In addition to these initiatives, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I will keep pushing to update our privacy laws to address emerging technology and the Internet, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and cybersecurity laws. We must also reauthorize the satellite TV license, make books accessible to those with visual disabilities, and create incentives for innovation. Like Chief Justice Roberts, I believe the extraordinarily high number of extended judicial vacancies has to end. The Judiciary Committee will continue to work to fill these vacancies, many unnecessarily perpetuated, which threaten our justice system.
I know well the responsibility and the pressures that come with chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee. I also know what a rare privilege it is to have the opportunity to help make a real difference in the lives of my fellow Vermonters and of all Americans. I know that we will have a busy and productive year as we pursue these and other issues that affect the lives of more than 300 million Americans.MORE IN Commentary
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