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Senate Debates Crime Victims’ Constitutional Amendment

The Senate spent the majority of the week debating a crime victims’ constitutional amendment (S. J. Res. 3) before sponsors of the resolution withdrew a motion to proceed on April 27. Earlier in the week, the Senate on April 25 overwhelmingly voted, 82-12, to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed. Generally, the motion to proceed is then approved and Senators begin debate on the underlying measure. However, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) threatened to file a cloture petition on S. J. Res. 3, thereby limiting Senators’ abilities to offer amendments. That threat, coupled with resolution sponsors Sens. John Kyl (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) continued negotiations on the proposed amendment with the Clinton Administration, caused Senators to spend several days debating the motion to proceed. Because support for the resolution appeared to dwindle, Sen. Lott withdrew the motion to proceed. “That merely means a timeout in our efforts to secure passage of this constitutional amendment,” stated Sen. Kyl.

The proposed amendment would guarantee a victim of crime the right to:

  • be notified of all legal proceedings and to be heard at those proceedings;
  • be notified of the release of a convicted offender;
  • have his/her case heard without reasonable delay;
  • receive restitution from a convicted offender;
  • have his/her safety considered in determining release; and
  • be notified of pardon and commutation proceedings.

Proponents assert that a constitutional amendment would create uniformity among states and balance defendants’ rights with victims’ rights. “Thirty-two state constitutional amendments have been passed….Unfortunately, these state provisions have not been applied with sufficient seriousness to ensure the protection of these victims of crime,” stated Sen. Kyl. “State amendments are not enough,” added Sen. Feinstein, saying that the purpose of the amendment was to “restore balance in the criminal justice system.”

Opponents cautioned against amending the Constitution. “If we are going to start talking about constitutional amendments….Let’s talk about the others that should come up….Let’s have a constitutional amendment debate on abortion….Maybe we should have a gun amendment to clarify the second amendment,” argued Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

Opponents also argued that the amendment could be used against a battered woman who defends herself. “There is tremendous concern…that, in fact, this constitutional amendment will have the opposite effect than is intended, especially when it comes to protection for women and children; it will lessen that protection for women and children,” argued Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN).

The administration opposes the amendment because of a provision added during subcommittee action last year that would allow a victim of crime to be notified of pardon and commutation proceedings (see The Source, 5/28/99, p. 3). The President is concerned that the provision could infringe upon the presidential commutation authority.

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