Proposal Shelved for Crime Victim Rights Amendment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An effort led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to pass a constitutional amendment that would protect the rights of crime victims fizzled in the Senate on Thursday amid concern that altering the Constitution is the wrong way to address the issue.

With private vote counts showing that the proposal did not have the two-thirds support needed to pass a constitutional amendment, an obviously frustrated Feinstein and her co-sponsor, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), said that they would withdraw the legislation--most likely for the rest of the session.

The decision to shelve the proposal marked a stunning setback for an idea whose time once seemed to have arrived.

Prodded by mounting horror stories about the treatment of victims in criminal cases, Republicans quickly seized on the "bill of rights" concept in the mid-1990s. In 1996, President Clinton endorsed the idea in general, though he never specifically backed Feinstein's proposed amendment.

Thirty-two states, including California, have passed amendments to their own constitutions to protect victims' rights. But Feinstein and Kyl contended that the constitutional amendment was needed because the state measures had proved inadequate or were rarely enforced.

"That's what this is all about--to give victims [legal] standing in the Constitution of the United States," Feinstein said Thursday.

The Senate debated the proposed amendment throughout the week, and opposition to the measure, especially among many of the Senate's key Democrats, left little doubt that it was unlikely to pass.

"I think that there has been an erosion of support," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Thursday.

The opposition stemmed from a wide array of concerns: Civil libertarians warned that granting formal rights to victims might end up eroding legal protections for the accused. The White House had qualms about a recently added clause that would require the White House to give victims a voice in any pardons granted by presidents.

By far the most important factor, however, was a reluctance by many senators to amend the Constitution rather than simply enact a federal law that would provide legal protections for victims.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) chided his colleagues for "taking a roller to a Rembrandt" by trying to pass a constitutional amendment. "I think we are in haste producing a product which we will come to regret."

Durbin reminded his colleagues that Congress had considered more than 11,000 proposals to change the Constitution since the document was written in 1789. Only 28 amendments have been accepted, including just six since 1933.

Feinstein and Kyl's proposed amendment was designed to guarantee victims of violent crimes rights connected with the way cases are handled, from being notified about trials and parole hearings to receiving restitution for damage or injury.

It would provide victims the right to attend any proceeding relating to the crime, including the trial. It also would require that crime victims be told whenever a perpetrator escapes from prison or is released--an attempt to help a victim avoid being assaulted by a criminal again.

During floor debate, some senators expressed concern that allowing crime victims to sit through all trial proceedings might taint their testimony as witnesses. Still, the debate suggested widespread support for many of the specific provisions that Feinstein and Kyl proposed.

While Feinstein insisted that an amendment is necessary because some judges have ignored earlier legislation mandating such guarantees, other lawmakers clearly disagreed.

"We don't need to amend the federal Constitution to achieve this," Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.

Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that failure of the effort showed a revival of "the old dividing lines between civil libertarians and law-and-order types."

"If this were simple legislation instead of a constitutional amendment, it would pass unanimously," Wittmann asserted.

He said that Feinstein, who is facing reelection this year, "has made a reputation as a law-and-order liberal. By taking such a visible role, she is trying to underscore that she is tough-minded."

Had the amendment passed the Senate and later been approved by the House, it would have required ratification by three-fourths of state Legislatures to become a part of the Constitution.

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