Amending Constitution a long shot for Feinstein |

Amending Constitution a long shot for Feinstein

Dozens of people, including the mother of a child killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, gathered at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday and urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the rights of crime victims.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – who co-sponsored the amendment and spoke on its behalf in the Senate Tuesday – says something must be done to balance the rights of victims against those of criminals.

Almost half the members of the Senate have expressed support for the amendment, but critics have called the effort a knee-jerk reaction to an important issue.

“Some of my colleagues apparently think (the Constitution) is only a rough draft, available for change at their whim,” Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I, however, think it is much more important than that.”

Byron said while more than 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed in the last 207 years, only 27 have been adopted – the first 10 of which are known as The Bill of Rights.

“Amendment or change to the Constitution should be done rarely, and then only when it is the only possible solution,” he said.

Feinstein argued the Constitution guarantees 15 separate rights to criminal defendants, but not any to victims.

“I steadfastly believe that we must pass a constitutional amendment giving crime victims certain basic rights, such as the right to be informed, present, and heard at critical stages throughout the case,” she said. “This is the least that the system owes to those it failed to protect.”

The amendment would establish the following rights:

– to be notified of proceedings,

– not to be excluded from the trial or other proceedings,

– to be heard at certain crucial stages in the process,

– to have freedom from unreasonable delay in the trial,

– to receive restitution from the convicted offender,

– to have their safety considered in determining a release from custody,

– and to be notified of these rights.

Feinstein admitted that the amendment won’t dramatically affect California – which was one of the first of 33 states to adopt similar protections in its own constitution. Supporters, however, called it a symbolic first step toward protecting the rights of victims.

“(Passing an amendment) is the first step,” said Tamara Utzig, a legal advocate at the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center. “The next step is enforcing (it).”

She said not all courts are as sympathetic to victims as courts in South Lake Tahoe.

“An amendment would help make (victims) feel a part of the system instead of as if everything has been taken from them,” she said.

It might also help judges and prosecutors protect the rights of victims, said Susan Meyer, who supervises the El Dorado County Victim Witness Program.

El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Jerald Lasarow, who supports such an amendment, agreed.

“It won’t hurt the process, but it won’t change the way we operate,” he said. “We are already required by state law to include victims. They appear at hearings, at trials, and give statements to the court about what sentence they feel is appropriate.”

Susan Meyer’s husband, acting El Dorado County Public Defender Rick Meyer, hopes that states continue to protect victims’ rights, but spoke out against a constitutional amendment.

“The Bill of Rights is not designed to protect criminals, it is designed to protect all members of society from abuses at the hand of the government,” he said. “The advocates of the amendment argue that the Bill of Rights guarantees ’15 rights’ to criminals but none to victims, and suggest it is necessary to change the Constitution to level the playing field. While at first blush this sounds reasonable it is a misleading argument.”

Even if the necessary two-thirds of the Congress is convinced by the argument, an amendment could be years away. The legislatures in 38 states have to approve any amendment before changes are made to the Constitution.

The Constitution was last amended in 1971 to ensure the voting rights of people over the age of 18.

“(This amendment) will help bring forward the rights of victims,” Susan Meyer said, disagreeing with her husband. “There is a little more meat to something if it is in the United States’ Constitution, and that might be helpful.”

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