THE PROPOSED VICTIMS' Rights Amendment to the Constitution would be as superfluous as an amendment requiring federal and state governments to celebrate Mother's Day.
Victims' rights are amply protected by a spiraling number of federal and state statutes, and they promise to strengthen. No political genius is necessary to project the victor in legislative battles where the contestants are crime victims and their predators. Further, no decision of the Supreme Court militates against the most muscular victims' rights statutes.The Constitution has retained its sacredness and accessibility largely by confining its voice either to basic political architecture or to fundamental individual rights historically threatened by popular majorities. The proposed law satisfies neither standard.
The government is entrusted with the prosecution and punishment of criminals. The interests of the community in the timing of the trial, the granting of immunity and the severity of the sentence frequently transcend the private wishes of the crime victims.
They, of course, may seek redress in civil suits, as occurred after the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Further, crime victims may seek statutory rights to participate in criminal justice decisions relating to prosecution, parole and sentencing.
On that score, they have proved more invincible than the Chicago Bulls. Virtually every state and Congress have responded with alacrity to victims' demands for greater participatory rights.
Victims of crime deserve sympathy. But so did union members who struggled for long years for the rights to strike and to collective bargaining. Union rights, however, were ultimately protected by statutes, not by amending the Constitution.
It is counterfactual to insist that rights of individuals to participate in government processes that strongly affect their lives are presumptive candidates for enshrinement in the Constitution.
It is said by amendment proponents, however, that state judges and prosecutors only grudgingly enforce existing victims' rights statutes. If so, they would be inclined to flout the amendment.
The judicial oath is no less violated in the first case than in the second. The Civil War Amendments, for example, were virtual inkblots in the courts for racial minorities and women for approximately a century because of a hos-tile social climate.
Time will solve pinched applications of victims' rights statutes. The septuagenarians of criminal law enforcement matured when victims' rights were in the wilderness. They instinctively resist any novelty or innovation in their work habits.
But the old guard will soon die or retire in favor of judges and prosecutors imbued with a victims' rights agenda and devoted to exacting enforcement standards.
Hallowed law professors Laurence Tribe and Paul Cassell agree that constitutional amendments that disturb the balance of national-state powers or achieve short-term policy objectives are unwarranted but assert that this amendment is irreproachable on both counts. That posturing, however, seems reminiscent of Lord Byron's Julia, who, whispering she'd never consent, consented.
The Victims' Rights Amendment would slow lead-footed justice to the glacial by raising a welter of knotty legal questions that would require decades of litigation to resolve.
For instance, it crowns victims of violent crime with a handsome array of notice and participation rights but omits any limiting definition of who is to be crowned.
Suppose a Mafia godfather were murdered. Would crime victims include the deceased's wife, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, uncles, creditors, bosom friends, business partners, comrades in crime or a cherished priest?