Amanda Nguyen remembers watching the reactions of lawmakers as they listened to women from their states and districts who'd been sexually assaulted — and family members of victims who'd been killed.
That’s when she realized change was still possible, even in Washington’s era of dysfunction.
Nguyen can also recall the crowded crisis center waiting room, a few years earlier, where she found herself after being sexually assaulted. It was there, she said, that she first realized she was part of a struggle larger than her own personal tragedy.
Not long after the attack, she came to Washington. There, she found Democratic and Republican allies. Nguyen used her own account to help alter federal law. A bill that received zero votes in opposition in either chamber known as the “Survivor’s Bill of Rights” became law Friday when President Barack Obama signed it.
Nguyen had fought to ensure the rape kit used to collect evidence after her assault would not be destroyed. After looking into it, she realized states and commonwealths treated the materials — and the rights of victims — differently.
“Justice depends on geography,” she said.
She wasn't satisfied with the status quo. What she decided to do was rooted in her belief in “equality under the law.” That, she said, is what “everyone teaches you our country is built on.”
Nguyen could have been silent. She could have remained anonymous, as many victims of sexual assaults do each year.
Instead, she opted to fight. But not via a criminal justice system she views as broken. Nguyen chose a different path, one that led her to traverse the halls of Congress looking for lawmakers willing to help her make a stand by giving sexual assault survivors more rights.
“It really came down to realizing the struggles I was dealing with in the criminal justice system were not exclusive to me,” she told Roll Call on Friday.
Fighting back tears
There were hard times as she and and other members of a coalition called Rise used a $60,000 budget to push members.
“I cannot count how many times I have had to sit there trying to suppress my tears when there were staffers or others who wanted to debate my own civil rights in front of my face,” she said. “Some even went so far as to threaten me for trying to get this passed.”
Staffers told her their bosses were focused on re-election campaigns or simply that “this isn’t something that my member cares about or prioritizes.”
“That’s not uncommon for citizen advocates to hear,” Nguyen said.
Her voice grew more serious as she shared an insight many in Washington well beyond their mid-20s have yet to learn:
“But legislation isn’t dead until it’s truly dead.”
She and her Rise colleagues kept going. And in the end, they defied substantial odds. Data experts ran the numbers and told the coalition that of the substantive bills that both the House and Senate have passed since 1989 via a recorded tally, only 0.016 percent were approved unanimously.
Nguyen said she was raped in Massachusetts in 2013. So far, her contact with the criminal justice system has focused on preserving her rape kit.
Nguyen does not discuss specifics, a Rise spokeswoman said Friday. One reason is she doesn’t want to dissuade other victims from contacting law enforcement officials.
The spokeswoman said Nguyen has not yet pursued criminal charges, heeding the advice of her counsel that a criminal trial could take up to two years — and legal bills. She did not feel in a personal or professional position to commit that kind of time or resources to a lengthy criminal proceeding, the spokeswoman said.
Part of the reason, according to interviews Nguyen has done, is she works a hectic full-time job in Washington as deputy White House liaison to the State Department.
Walking the halls
Congressional aides say Nguyen began walking the halls of congressional office buildings in 2013, legislation in hand, looking for someone to take up the cause of ensuring evidence collected from rape victims is not destroyed after six months.
Her quest took her over countless feet of tile and concrete floors, and past ornate columns. Eventually, she headed to the Hart Senate Office Building on the Senate side, and found her way into the office of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
She first met with an aide to the New Hampshire Democrat, who quickly recognized the issue was worthy of quick action and one that could likely be shepherded to the president’s desk for his signature.
Soon after, Nguyen met with Shaheen, who has written that she was “deeply moved” by the 24-year-old’s story.
“The trauma of the assault was made worse by what came next as she sought justice. After reporting her assault, she experienced a criminal justice system that was working against her, not for her,” Shaheen wrote in a Medium post. “Amanda, and so many survivors like her, have to navigate a complex and cryptic maze of policies and laws that differ from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”
Six months after meeting with Nguyen — a relative blink of an eye when it comes to moving legislation — Shaheen and fellow Democrats Judiciary ranking member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced an early version of the legislation.
Between those first July 2015 meetings and the bill’s introduction in February, aides say it underwent a thorough process that included numerous drafts
‘A model for states’
The measure throws federal law behind survivors of alleged sexual assaults by giving them a new set of rights to use in federal court. The law will make available so-called “rape kits,” or the items used to collect and preserve physical evidence in sexual assault cases.
The law will also hand assault survivors the ability to say whether they want the kits preserved through the statute of limitation, and ensure they don’t have to pay.
Nguyen describes the bill as more than re-writing federal laws, calling it “a model for states.” In fact, Rise is working with 14 state legislatures who have lawmakers interested in moving sexual assault victims’ rights bills to change the laws within their local turf.
Formally called the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, the measure passed the House 399-0 in early September. The Senate followed with its own unanimous approval on Sept. 28.
On the Senate side, the measure was championed by Shaheen, who began working on the issue after Nguyen stopped by her office, part of her search to find lawmakers willing to push the cause via legislation.
“It’s been just over a year since Amanda Nguyen walked into my office recounting the heartbreaking story of what happened after she reported her assault,” Shaheen said in a statement.
“Survivors of sexual assault like Amanda need to know the government and justice system are on their side, and with a unanimous vote in Congress, we have sent a strong signal to survivors across the country: We are committed to changing the culture around how survivors will be treated in our criminal justice system,” Shaheen said.
Across the Capitol, Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Zoe Lofgren of California, and GOP Rep. Mimi Walters of California pushed a nearly identical initial version through the House. Technical differences were then worked out before both chambers sent the final version to Obama’s desk.
Despite the bipartisan sponsors and vote results in both chambers, as with most matters these days, the measure’s path to Obama’s pen strokes involved some political gamesmanship and public bickering.
Shaheen’s office claims Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and his staff never acknowledged Shaheen’s version of the legislation, never giving it time in committee.
A Grassley aide contends that GOP Judiciary Committee staffers were involved at every step, even providing advice to Shaheen and her office. The aide said Republicans on the panel concluded that her initial version would likely have failed to garner enough bipartisan support, and Grassley’s committee staff stepped in to craft a passable version. (Shaheen’s office contends that it was “ignored” by the chairman and his aides.)
When the House passed its measure, Grassley attempted to fast-track it through the Senate. The GOP senator accused Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of initially blocking it.
Reid ultimately relented. But Grassley took to the floor to chide him nonetheless.
“If you want to know what’s really going on, it’s that the Democratic leader is using political gamesmanship to hold up noncontroversial as well as bipartisan legislation, mostly by Republican members who are up for re-election this year,” Grassley said.
Reid never said explicitly why he allowed the measure to move forward. Perhaps he did so because Grassley’s version mirrored the legislation that Shaheen had introduced in February.
Reid said on the floor that Grassley “took credit for a bill that was Sen. Shaheen’s bill. It was her bill. He took it, put his name on it.”
Still, despite the Grassley-Reid tiff, Nguyen said she hopes that the new law will show others that “if a 24-year-old can write and pass legislation unanimously in both chambers, anyone can.”