Looking only at voting records, you wouldn't expect Rand Paul and Patrick J. Leahy to share an award of any kind.
But the Kentucky Republican who's running for president and the Vermont Democrat who is now the longest-serving senator gave remarkably similar policy speeches Wednesday evening. The remarks by the two senators to The Constitution Project's annual awards gala highlighted the fact that on civil liberties issues, party labels aren't representative of much.
Bipartisan efforts to overhaul criminal justice highlighted both speeches, with Paul calling for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing as part of his push against what he views as an effectively discriminatory legal system.
"The answer isn't just racial sensitivity training. The answer isn't just more African-American police officers, although it's probably part of the answer. That's not the ultimate answer," Paul said. "I think the ultimate answer is in understanding the war on drugs has gone too far. We've treated the war on drugs and we've treated addiction and we've treated problems that our kids have as an incarceration issue and not an addiction or a health issue."
"That has not made us safer," Leahy said of laws providing for mandatory minimums. "A third of our Justice Department's budget is in the Bureau of Prisons, not in going after criminals, not in stopping terrorists. These laws do not help us. I oppose all mandatory minimums."
Leahy highlighted the Justice Safety Valve Act he's drafted with Paul to give discretion in sentencing to federal judges to go below established sentencing requirements under certain conditions.
Interestingly, Leahy spoke first after an introduction from former aide Debo P. Adegbile — whose Senate nomination to head up the Justice Department's Civil Rights division was thwarted over past connections to representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
"You defended the Constitution for all Americans, even if it might cost you in your own career. You stood for the Constitution," Leahy said, praising Adegbile. "I can't think of anything that I admire more in a person."
"I'd admire you even if your middle name wasn't Patrick," Leahy said.
The awards presentation was unexpectedly timely, in a sense. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., just the day before, introduced a straightforward reauthorization of surveillance authorities used by the NSA to collect American phone and other records in bulk under Section 215 of FISA. That authority will lapse at the end of May. Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said the legislation he joined McConnell in introducing was effectively an opening bid for discussions.
"Our government has ... gone too far in intruding on Americans' privacy rights in the name of countering terrorism, something Sen. Paul and I have talked about many, many times," Leahy said. "Section 215 expires in a few short weeks. Some want to just expand it. I want to work with Republicans and Democrats for some real reform. I think we have to end this bulk collection program once and for all. It's not what we are as Americans. It does not make us safer, and it is foolish to give this to the next generation."
Leahy and Paul hail from different points on the ideological spectrum, to be sure, but their positions on civil liberties issues have significant overlap, making them an ideal pair for being honored at the Constitutional Champions Gala. The two senators were honored along with Twitter, which was praised by The Constitution Project for its efforts to push back against government efforts to compel disclosure of information about its users.
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