This vote was on bringing debate to a close on an amendment by Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would add the text of a sweeping hate crimes bill, which would expand federal hate crimes laws to cover sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, among other things. The amendment was offered to the bill that authorizes Defense Department programs in fiscal 2010.
This particular vote was an on a “cloture motion.” If the Senate votes to “invoke cloture” – or bring debate on a bill to a close – then lawmakers must either hold a vote on whether to pass the bill in question, or move on to other business. This type of motion is most often called on contentious bills where the leadership is concerned that consideration could be held up indefinitely by a handful of politicians.
Leahy said the legislation, which is named after Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten to death for being gay, has passed the Senate four times before, but was never enacted into law during the administration of President Bush.
“The hate crimes amendment would improve existing law by making it easier for Federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes of racial, ethnic, or religious violence. Victims will no longer have to engage in a narrow range of activities, such as serving as a juror, to be protected under Federal law,” Leahy said. “As a former State prosecutor, respect for local and State law enforcement is important to me. This amendment was carefully crafted to strike a proper balance between Federal and local interests by allowing the Federal Government to appropriately support, but not to substitute for, State and local law enforcement.”
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he abhorred the fate that befell Matthew Shepard as much as anyone, but that this is too big a change to the law in the absence of studies showing its necessity, and that it could also be unconstitutional because it usurps states’ power. He offered an amendment (see vote 231) unsuccessfully that would have replaced Leahy’s amendment with a study.
“It seems to me before we even consider such a broad and sweeping change in the Federal criminal law we should at the very least have enough information before us to determine whether such law is necessary. My amendment would have us get that information and, in addition, establish a role for the Federal Government that is more appropriate respecting the sovereignty of the States and the limits on Federal power established under the Constitution,” Hatch said. “It should be noted that this bill that has been called up is named the Matthew Shepard bill. What happened to Mr. Shepard was brutal, heinous, awful, unforgivable. But the fact is, the perpetrators are now spending the rest of their lives in prison because the local judiciary and system tried and convicted them. There is a real question whether we should put into law this hate crimes bill that I believe is going to cause a lot more problems than it will help, especially since there is no basic evidence that the State and local governments are incapable or unable to take care of these types of crimes.”
By a vote of 63-28, the motion was adopted. Every Democrat present voted for the motion. All but five Republicans present voted against the motion. The end result is that the motion to bring debate to a close passed, and the Senate proceeded to a vote on the amendment itself, which would significantly expand federal hate crimes laws. (In the end, the amendment passed via a voice vote.)