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Why The Rights of Victims Can Only Be Secured In The United States Constitution

By Steve Twist, Esq.

 

 Even the Amendment's most ardent critics usually say they support most of the rights in principle. If there is one thing certain in the victims' rights debate, it is that these words, "I'm all for victims' rights but . . .," are heard repeatedly. But while supporting the rights "in principle," opponents in practice end up supporting, if anything, mere statutory fixes that have proven inadequate to the task of vindicating the interests of victims. As Attorney General Reno testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary, ". . . efforts to secure victims' rights through means other than a constitutional amendment have proved less than fully adequate." The best federal statutes have proven inadequate to the needs of even highly publicized victim injustices, as Professor Cassell's writing about the plight of the Oklahoma City bombing victims has ably demonstrated.

 

In my state, statutes were inadequate to change the justice system. And now, despite its successes, we realize that our state constitutional amendment will also prove inadequate to fully implement victims' rights. While the amendment has improved the treatment of victims, it does not provide the unequivocal command that is needed to completely change old ways. In our state, as in others, the existing rights too often "fail to provide meaningful protection whenever they come into conflict with bureaucratic habit, traditional indifference, sheer inertia or the mere mention of an accuser's rights -- even when those rights are not genuinely threatened." The experience in my state is, sadly, hardly unique. A recent study by the National Institute of Justice found that "even in States where victims' rights were protected strongly by law, many victims were not notified about key hearings and proceedings, many were not given the opportunity to be heard, and few received restitution." The victims most likely to be affected by the current haphazard implementation are, perhaps not surprisingly, racial minorities.

 

A group calling itself "Citizens for the Constitution "[hereinafter "Citizens"] has organized under the auspices of The Century Foundation's Constitution Project. Their purpose is to call for restraint in the consideration of Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. In their recent pamphlet, "Great and Extraordinary Occasions": Developing Guidelines for Constitutional Change, the group propounds eight guidelines which, they argue, should be satisfied before any constitutional amendment would be justified. The "Citizens" raise some questions, in the commentary following their guidelines, about the Crime Victims' Rights Amendment. Applying these rigorous Guidelines, however, despite the reservations of the "Citizens" themselves, demonstrates unequivocal support for the case for the Amendment. I would like to direct the Subcommittee's attention to these eight guidelines, which the "citizens" offer in the form of eight questions.

 

 

1. Does the proposed amendment address matters that are of more than immediate concern and that are likely to be recognized as of abiding importance by subsequent generations?

 

Yes.

Even as the Constitutional rights of persons accused or convicted of crimes address issues of "abiding importance," so to do the proposed rights of crime victims. The legitimate rights of the accused to notice, to the right to be present and the right to be heard or remain silent, the right to a speedy and public trial, or any of the other rights are surely no more enduring than the legitimate interests of the victim to notice, presence, or the right to be heard, or any of the other rights proposed by the amendment. Surely no one could persuasively argue that the rights of the innocent victim were less important or enduring.

Indeed, it is precisely because these values for victims are of enduring, or "abiding" importance that they must be protected against erosion by any branch or majoritarian will. That they do not exist today broadly across the country is evidence that they are not adequately protected despite general acceptance of their merit.

 

 

2. Does the proposed amendment make our system more politically responsive or protect individual rights?

 

Yes.

Clearly the proposed amendment is offered to "protect individual rights." That is its sole purpose.

The "Citizens" however, suggest that Congress should ask "whether crime victims are a 'discreet and insular minority' requiring constitutional protection against overreaching majorities or whether they can be protected through ordinary political means. Congress should also ask whether it is appropriate to create rights for them that are virtually immune from future revision. Let's review these two questions.

 

"[O]rdinary political means" have proven wholly inadequate to establish and protect the rights reviewed above. If this were not so they would exist and be respected in every state and throughout the federal government. The evidence that they are not is as compelling as it is overwhelming. Why is this so? Are crime victims unpopular? No, but as a class they are ignored; their interests subordinated to the interests of the defendant and the professionals in the system. And those interests are entrenched as deeply as any in this society. Crime victims become "discreet and insular" by virtue of their transparency. If this were not so we would not be here for our rights would be secure.

 

 

3. Are there significant practical or legal obstacles to the achievement of the objectives of the proposed amendment by other means?

 

Yes.

The "Citizens" write, 'The proposed victims' rights amendment raises troubling questions under this Guideline. Witnesses testifying in Congress on behalf of the amendment point to the success of state amendments as reason to enact a federal counterpart. But the passage of the state amendments arguably cuts just the other way; for the most part, states are capable of changing their own law of criminal procedure in order to accommodate crime victims, without the necessity of federal constitutional intervention. While state amendments cannot affect victims' rights in federal courts, Congress has considerable power to furnish such protections through ordinary legislation. Indeed, it did so in March 1997 with Public Law 105-6 . . . which allowed the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing to attend trial proceedings."

 

I was one of those witnesses the "Citizens" referred to. They should have read all my testimony. Let me repeat again one of my statements, "In my state, the statutes were inadequate to change the justice system. And now, despite its successes, we realize that our state constitutional amendment will also prove inadequate to fully implement victims' rights. While the amendment has improved the treatment of victims, it does not provide the unequivocal command that is needed to completely change old ways. In our state, as in others, the existing rights too often "fail to provide meaningful protection whenever they come into conflict with bureaucratic habit, traditional indifference, sheer inertia or the mere mention of an accused's rights -- even when those rights are not genuinely threatened." (Quoting Prof. Lawrence Tribe on the proposed amendment).

 

Moreover our courts have now made explicit in a series of cases (cited in Hearing Report on S. J. Res. 6, April 16, 1997, Senate Judiciary Committee) what was always understood: namely that the U. S. Constitutional rights of the defendant will always trump any right of the victim without any fair attempt to balance the rights of both.

 

On the Oklahoma City bombing point that the "Citizens" make they should have read the whole testimony of Prof. Paul Cassell who convincingly demonstrates how the statute cited by the citizens was inadequate to the task of fully protecting even these high profile and compelling victims. The law didn't work for them. How much less must it work for victims who don't have the clout to get an act of Congress passed? That "other means," to use the "Citizens" phrase, have simply proven inadequate is concurred in by a broad consensus that includes the Justice Department, constitutional scholars of the highest regard from both ends of the political spectrum, the President, the Vice President, the platforms of both major political parties, and bi-partisan coalition of Members and Senators, and crime victim advocates throughout our country.

 

 

4. Is the proposed amendment consistent with related constitutional doctrine that the amendment leaves in tact?

 

Yes.

The proposed rights are perfectly consistent with the constitutional doctrine that fundamental rights for citizens in our justice system need the protection of our fundamental law.

 

 

5. Does the proposed amendment embody enforceable, and not purely aspirational, standards?

 

Yes.

The text of the proposed amendment grants to crime victims constitutional standing to stand before any judge in the country and seek orders protected the established rights. This is the essence of enforceability.

 

 

6. Have the proponents of the proposed amendment attempted to think through and articulate the consequences of their proposal, including the ways in which the amendment would interact with other constitutional provisions and principles?

 

Yes.

More than simply "think through" the proposal, proponents of the CVRA have taken roughly two decades of experience with state statutes and constitutional provisions to develop a very refined understanding of the limits of state and federal law, the need for a federal amendment, and how that amendment would work in actual practice and be interpreted. No other constitutional amendment has had this degree of vetting.

 

 

7. Has there been full and fair debate on the merits of the proposed amendment?

 

Yes.

The Congress has had the amendment under consideration since 1996. There have been major hearings in both bodies on multiple occasions. The record of debate and discussion throughout the country is extensive.

 

 

8. Has congress provided for a non-extendable deadline for ratification by the states so as to ensure that there is a contemporaneous consensus by Congress and the states that the proposed amendment is desirable?

 

Yes.

The proposal establishes a seven-year deadline for State ratification.

 

 

Conclusion

The proposed amendment passes the test of the "Citizens" Guidelines. More importantly, it is fully faithful to the spirit and design of James Madison.

 

The "Citizens'" pamphlet, Great and Extraordinary Occasions, takes its name from a line in The Federalist No. 49, authored by James Madison. There Madison rightly argued for restraint in the use of the amendment process. But of course he rose above rightful restraint to propose the first twelve amendments.

 

When James Madison took to the floor and proposed the Bill of Rights during the first session of the First Congress, on June 8, 1789, "his primary objective was to keep the Constitution intact, to save it from the radical amendments others had proposed . . . ." In doing so he acknowledged that many Americans did not yet support the Constitution.

 

"Prudence dictates that advocates of the Constitution take steps now to make it as acceptable to the whole people of the United States, as it has been found acceptable to a majority of them."

 

The fact is, Madison said, there is still "a great number" of the American people who are dissatisfied and insecure under the new Constitution. So, "if there are amendments desired of such a nature as will not injure the constitution, and they can be ingrafted so as to give satisfaction to the doubting part of our fellow-citizens," why not, in the spirit of "deference and concession," adopt such amendments?

 

Madison adopted this tone of "deference and concession" because he realized that the Constitution must be the "will of all of us, not just a majority of us." By adopting a bill of rights, Madison thought, the Constitution would live up to this purpose. He also recognized how the Constitution was the only document which could likely command this kind of influence over the culture of the country.

 

Our goals are perfectly consistent with the goals that animated James Madison. There is substantial evidence in the land that the Constitution today does not serve the interests of the "whole people" in matters relating to criminal justice. And the way to restore balance to the system, in ways that become part of our culture, is to amend our fundamental law.

 

"[The Bill of Rights will] have a tendency to impress some degree of respect for [the rights], to establish the public opinion in their favor, and rouse the attention of the whole community . . . [they] acquire, by degrees, the character of fundamental maxims. . as they become incorporated with the national sentiment. . . Critics of Madison's proposed amendments claimed they were unnecessary, especially so in the United States, because states had bills of rights. Madison responded with the observation that "not all states have bills of rights, and some of those that do have inadequate and even 'absolutely improper' ones." Our experience in the victims' rights movement is no different. Not all states have constitutional rights, nor even adequate statutory rights. There are 33 state constitutional amendments and they are of varying degrees of value.

 

Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe has observed this failure : " . . . there appears to be a considerable body of evidence showing that, even where statutory or regulatory or judge-made rules exist to protect the participatory rights of victims, such rights often tend to be honored in the breach . . . ." As a consequence he has concluded that crime victims' rights "are the very kinds of rights with which our Constitution is typically concerned."

 

After years of struggle, we now know that the only way to make respect for the rights of crime victims "incorporated with the national sentiment," is to make them a part of "the sovereign instrument of the whole people," the Constitution. Just as James Madison would have done it.

 

 

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