Gun control, immigration and a push to update domestic-violence laws will headline an aggressive Senate Judiciary agenda this year, the panel’s chairman said Wednesday.
In two weeks, the committee will “begin examining possible remedies to tragedies like last month’s shootings in Newtown,” Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., told an audience at Georgetown University Law Center.
As chairman, Leahy is poised to play a crucial role in any legislative response to the shooting spree that claimed 26 victims at an elementary school in the Connecticut town. The Jan. 30 hearing will be the first of several, Leahy said.
“I hope it’s going to be an open forum for a constructive discussion,” Leahy said. “Again, spare me symbolic arguments. Let’s have a constructive discussion about how better to protect our communities from mass shootings, while respecting fundamental rights guaranteed by our Supreme Court.”
Leahy, himself a gun owner, sought to dispel speculation that he might impede efforts to enact sweeping changes in gun laws.
“I’m going to hold the first hearings, and I think that should be an example that I’m committed to seeing something done,” Leahy told reporters before leaving to attend President Barack Obama’s announcement of the administration’s gun control proposals.
“I’m looking forward to reviewing the proposals the president is announcing today,” and “of course the Judiciary Committee will consider those proposals as we begin what will be the first of several hearings on this topic,” Leahy said.
During a nearly hour-long speech, Leahy said he supports an inclusive debate that would feature such issues as mental health, violence in popular media, gun safety and gun trafficking as well as limits on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, background checks, and closing the so-called gun show loophole.
“As President Obama’s made clear, no single step can end this kind of violence,” Leahy said. But he cautioned that not every remedy proposed is likely to become a reality.
“The fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help,” he said. “There are some who say nothing will pass. I disagree with that. What I’m interested in is what we can get.”
Also Wednesday, Leahy said he expects the Judiciary panel to “devote most of our time this spring [to] working to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Public hearings on that issue will begin next month.
“Everybody who’s got views, I’m going to make sure they’re heard,” Leahy said. “I’ve talked with President Obama about this. I know he’s strongly committed to real immigration reform.”
“I’d like to see the DREAM Act get passed, I’d like to see a number of other things, and we’ll work on it,” Leahy said, adding that any truly comprehensive overhaul “should include a path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants.
Leahy also announced plans to renew his bid to update the landmark domestic-violence law known as the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. A bipartisan Senate-passed bill fell victim last year to opposition from House lawmakers over provisions to expand services for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, illegal immigrants and Native Americans.
To “those who say that we should not pass it because we included [those groups of victims] ... I have never seen a police officer at a crime scene say ‘Well, before we can do anything about this person who has been beaten, perhaps to death, we must make sure the person is straight, or the person is an American, or the person is not a Native American,’” said Leahy, a former prosecutor.
Leahy later told reporters he will offer the same Senate bill “except, I think, we can cure the blue-slip problem,” referring to a provision to expand a visa program for illegal immigrants who help law enforcement. The revenue-related language prompted constitutional objections from the House because it did not originate there.
Leahy also pledged to bring back an email privacy proposal that fell short last year, saying a November committee vote on the legislation was intended to “lay down the marker as a way of telling everybody it’s coming back up again.”
On judicial nominations, Leahy called out his opponents. Those who block confirmation votes are essentially voting “maybe,” he said. “What an irresponsible, lazy thing to do.”
Leahy also said he would like the Judiciary panel to examine the legal issues surrounding the use of government drones, both abroad and domestically.
He vowed to push for better standards and more oversight for forensic labs to spur “improvements that far more effectively identify and convict people guilty of crimes but avoid the all-too-common tragedy of convicting the innocent.”
And he pledged to examine mandatory minimum sentences, arguing the government’s reliance on them to punish criminals “has been a great mistake.”
“I’m not convinced it has lowered crime,” he said. “Get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own minds.”