WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday to promote legislation that would extend hate-crime protections to the gay community and the disabled. “One of my highest personal priorities is to do everything I can to help ensure that this legislation finally becomes law,” he said before a crowded room.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would extend protections of existing hate-crime laws to violent crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. The bill, which has been pending for a decade, would allow the federal government to prosecute or assist in cases where the local governments might not, or when local governments don’t have enough resources.
Matthew Shepard, where the bill gets its name, was a 21-year-old gay man from Wyoming who was tortured, beat with a pistol, and left tied to a fence post. He died of the wounds.
Democrats said the legislation was necessary and long overdue, often giving examples of crimes against gays in their home states.
Republicans questioned the designation of hate crimes in general and argued that states are capable of prosecuting hate crimes without federal involvement. They expressed concerns that the legislation would block religious groups from preaching against gays and that the bill would be used for all violent crimes against members of the protected groups.
Holder’s backing comes weeks after the Justice Department defended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy before the Supreme Court, and a week after President Barack Obama signed an order that domestic partners of federal employees receive benefits akin to those married to federal employees, a move gay rights groups deemed weak.
Violence committed on the basis of race, color, religion or nation origin already falls under the hate-crime designation.
“Hate crimes and hate groups are growing nationwide,” Vermont Democratic Chairman Leahy said. He emphasized the problem, citing a Leadership Conference for Civil Rights report that said 7,500 hate crimes occur a year, “or nearly one every hour of the day,” Leahy said.
Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the committee, questioned the necessity of such a law. He mentioned that roughly 95 percent of crimes are prosecuted by state and local governments, and argued that they have been doing a good job. Before the federal government interferes, he said, “We need to explain why these cases are not being adequately prosecuted by state courts.”
Sessions cited the ruling in the Shepard case, where the perpetrator got two life sentences without federal government intervention.
Holder didn’t give any precise examples of state inadequacies, but said the Act will complement law enforcement as a tool to help local and state governments prosecute hate-crime perpetrators. It would also give the federal government power to intervene in the instance, however rare, that states don’t act on the crimes.
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said the language of the bill is too vague. “Couldn’t this bill be construed to cover almost any violent crime?” he asked.
“We’re not changing in any way the language” Holder replied, explaining that the bill would only expand the coverage of hate-crime laws already in place. He added that violent crimes against the gay community, for example, would not necessarily be considered hate crimes.
Sessions questioned the special status given to hate crimes. “Why don’t we make all crimes federal crimes?” he asked. He cited a soldier who was shot in Arkansas by a Muslim gunman who said he was getting back at the military for what it had done to Muslims. Sessions asked why this gunman shouldn’t be prosecuted as the perpetrator of a hate crime.
“Hate crimes victimize not only individuals, but entire communities,” Holder answered in defense of hate-crime designations. He also explained that the historic violence against certain groups is taken into account when they are protected under hate-crime legislation.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein did not ask any questions, and instead gave a speech in adamant support of the bill. “I think the time is long past for this,” she said as her voice faltered. She told the story of a lesbian couple in California who left a bar man. A man tracked the women and raped one of them. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh well, she deserved it,'” Feinstein said.
Leahy asked whether the hate-crime designation would violate the double jeopardy clause of the United States, which ensures that a defendant is not tried twice for the same crime. Some worried that if a crime is punishable by both the state and the federal government, it would violate this.
Holder answered that the “smart” lawyers of the Justice Department have determined that it wouldn’t, but did not elaborate.
When Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley asked if a minister who preaches that homosexuality should be condemned would be held responsible if someone acted on his call, Holder replied that the minister would not because the legislation is “to hold people accountable for conduct, not for speech.”
Several officers were among the crowd and Leahy cited enormous support for the bill from law enforcement agencies, as well as women’s groups and minority groups.