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For the week of April 24 - 30, 2002

  Opinion Columns

‘Victims rights’ latest constitutional protection proposal

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

A few vote-addicted senators always looking ahead to the next election have discovered an inexpensive, if not unscrupulous, way to harvest media attention and a few votes from grateful pleaders of narrow issues.

The only cost of their gimmickry is to their political integrity and the good name of earnest colleagues who revere statesmanship rather than one-upmanship.

Their ploy? Propose a willy-nilly change in the U.S. Constitution to heal whatever they believe ails a bloc of constituents.

When I checked several years ago, something like 180 amendments to the U.S. Constitution had been proposed over previous years, many variations on the same topics. The last one voted out of Congress to the states for ratification was the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, but was declared dead in 1982 after failing to be approved by 38 states.

Now another one has popped up — not surprisingly supported by President George W. Bush, who desperately needs the sweet scent of populism in a White House where the odor of Enron, Global Crossing and Arthur Andersen still hangs heavy in the air like the rot.

This new proposal would guarantee "victims rights" by adding this wording to the Constitution — "The rights of victims of violent crime, being capable of protection without denying the constitutional rights of those accused of victimizing them, are hereby established and shall not be denied by any state or the United States."

So what are the "rights of victims of violent crimes"?

Promoters explain the vague wording means that courts would be obliged to notify victims of violent crime when a criminal is sentenced or appears at a parole hearing so they can sound off about their suffering.

If approved by the Senate, ratification would need the approval of at least 38 states.

Why, you ask, do President Bush and the principal sponsors, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., believe this issue is grave enough to monkey with the Constitution?

Because, they claim, some state judges are indifferent to rights of crime victims. That’s hardly big thinking. Instead, it reveals what obsesses Washington — trying to amend the Constitution to resolve prickly issues involving school prayer, abortion, gun rights, desecration of the U.S. flag, tax exemptions for corporations and heaven knows what other special pleadings.

Statecraft seems to be a lost virtue. Some senators with a yen for the frivolous would reduce the grandeur and vision the U.S. Constitution to little more than a menu of cheap lawyerly gimmicks to accommodate single-issue causes.

Statutory laws or court rules could just as easily satisfy rights of crime victims. But that routine approach lacks media appeal. Using a sledgehammer to deal with a fly achieves political drama for these senators.

These authors and backers cynically know that a constitutional amendment in all probability will fail, and they’ll either be retired or dead by the time it meanders through the ratification process.

In the meantime, they reap the benefits of appearing to be noble crusaders.

A final irony:

Authors of recent constitutional amendments are ultra-conservatives who seethe at Supreme Court rulings that interpret the Constitution’s meaning rather than on the basis of what they call "strict constructionist" thinking.

If "strict constructionists" were ever to reign absolutely on the high court, every variation of every social, economic, political and technological problem would have to be defined and imbedded in the Constitution to prevent any interpretation of what the Framers meant more than 200 years ago.

In time, the U.S. Constitution would be wordier than the U.S. tax code. And we all know how confusing, complicated and overbearing that is.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.