Two California congresswomen are behind the new Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights

It’s not often a measure championed by the dean of the state’s majority Democratic congressional delegation gets praise from the Republican House speaker.

Maybe it helps that an up-and-coming freshman Republican’s name was attached to the legislation and that it deals with an issue gaining a lot of attention over the past few years.

Less than an hour after three sexual assault victims came to her office in May, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the highest-ranking female Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, approached the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), on the House floor.

The women had told Lofgren (D-San Jose) personal stories about not being allowed to undergo a medical exam to get a rape kit until after being questioned for hours, having to plead to get the DNA evidence tested or having to petition every few months to keep the kits from being destroyed.

One survivor told Lofgren that she initially thought the assault would be the most traumatic experience of her life.

“Even more traumatic, according to her, was the way she was further victimized by the system after being raped,” the congresswoman said in an interview.

They wanted to create a bill of rights of sorts, dictating how the justice system should treat sexual assault victims and determining what access they have to the evidence collected through rape examination kits. The idea had passed the Senate earlier in the year, but it didn’t have a champion in the House.

Goodlatte moved quickly, emailing staff and recruiting the only female Republican on his committee, Rep. Mimi Walters of Irvine, as the lead sponsor of the bill. Walters represents her freshman colleagues in House leadership, and was taken by the cause when she met with the women as well.

Especially in an election year, when it can be difficult to get bills approved, having a member of the majority party as a sponsor can greatly improve legislation’s chances.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously weeks after it was filed.

Lofgren and Walters said they didn’t know each other well before working on the bill, something that happens fairly frequently among the 53 Californians who make up the largest delegation in the country.

“I’m a pretty new member, and I really didn’t know her before I came to Washington, D.C., and sat on the Judiciary Committee,” Walters said. “I’m still developing a lot of new relationships.”

The House passed the bill, the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act of 2016, unanimously Tuesday. It states that sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have a right to an evidence collection kit, to be notified in writing before the kit is destroyed, to request that the kit be preserved and to be informed of the results when the kit is tested for DNA.

The bill also creates a task force to review how sexual assault victims are treated in the federal criminal justice system.

The issue has been increasingly in the news, particularly in California. Gov. Jerry Brown is weighing legislation to remove California’s statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assault. Last week, Reps. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange) and Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) joined other politicians urging voters to recall Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky for issuing a light sentence to former Stanford student Brock Turner, who was convicted on three felony counts in a sexual assault case but served only three months in jail of a six-month sentence.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office sent out a special notification highlighting the House bill and the work by Lofgren and Walters. Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, the only other California Republican to sponsor the bill, sent out a news release praising his state colleagues.

Lofgren said it didn’t matter to her whose name was on the bill or which party got credit.

“This would have passed no matter what,” Lofgren said.

What matters to her is that three survivors got a voice in Congress, and since a similar version passed the Senate unanimously by voice vote in May, legislators may be on their way to changing federal law, she said. The differences in the two bills need to be reconciled before a combined bill can go to President Obama.

One of the women who visited Lofgren and Walters, Amanda Nguyen, was in the House chamber as Walters and Lofgren spoke about the bill Tuesday. The other two who visited her in May, Lara McLeod and Marisa Ferri, watched on C-SPAN as Lofgren addressed them directly from the House floor.

“You are not weak victims. You are strong and powerful actors,” Lofgren said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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UPDATES:

Sept. 8, 8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information on Rep. Mimi Walters having met with the sexual assault survivors who inspired the legislation.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m., Sept. 7.

For the record: Rep. Mimi Walters also met with the sexual assault victims who inspired the legislation.
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