Southwest Va. congressmen vote against Violence Against Women Act, citing tribal prosecution provision
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed an extension of Violence Against Women Act, and President Barack Obama announced that he will sign the measure into law.
The law passed by a vote of 286-138 after the House defeated a more narrowly drawn proposal offered by the Republican majority. The bill going to Obama’s desk originated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
All three congressmen who represent parts of Southwest Virginia – Republicans Bob Goodlatte of Roanoke County, Morgan Griffith of Salem and Robert Hurt of Chatham – voted against the Senate version of the bill. All 138 opposing votes were cast by Republicans, while 87 GOP members joined Democrats in supporting the bill.
Goodlatte, Griffith and Hurt said the Senate version of the bill raised constitutional questions. Specifically, they objected to a provision giving tribal courts authority to prosecute non-Native Americans who are charged with domestic violence crimes against women on American Indian lands.
“When you no longer have the right to opt out for a jury of your peers, I have a problem with that,” Griffith said in a phone interview. “If you’re charged with any kind of a crime under the Violence Act. . . and that includes assault and battery, that bill now gives sole jurisdiction to the tribe. They claim that they would, in fact, honor the constitutional guarantees, but there are still some real questions about it.”
Griffith said the more narrow House bill, which he supported, would allow a defendant to “opt out” and be tried in a federal court for an offense that occurs on tribal lands.
Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Senate bill is unconstitutional.
“Domestic abuse is an all-too-common occurrence in the United States that destroys families and ends lives,” Goodlatte said in a written statement. “As someone who supported the VAWA reauthorization in 2000, 2005, 2012 and this week with the House alternative, I have a long track record of supporting efforts to combat domestic violence. In my role as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I will continue to search for ways to end this crisis in our homes and communities. While the House offered a bill that addressed all victims of violence in an appropriate manner, the Senate passed an unconstitutional bill that violates Americans’ constitutional rights. While well intentioned, I simply could not support unconstitutional legislation.”
Hurt, in a statement issued by his office, also raised concerns about the provision dealing with tribal prosecutions.
“When I was a prosecutor in the Pittsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, I saw firsthand the pain and suffering caused by domestic violence,” Hurt said. “During the years I served as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney I worked with hundreds of victims of domestic violence and worked to convict and punish hundreds of offenders. In addition, when I served as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, I worked on the Courts of Justice committee to ensure that Virginia has some of the most effective laws in the country for preventing and punishing domestic violence and for caring for victims of domestic violence. As I did last year, I voted in support of the House proposal to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. However, I was unable to support the final proposal that was ultimately adopted because I was concerned that the provisions relating to tribal prosecutions, while well-intended, did not contain the full constitutional protections guaranteed to all Americans.”
– Michael Sluss