The measure calls for creating a 14-member bipartisan commission with a $5 million budget to examine all levels of the justice system – federal, state and local. It is intended to lead to recommendations on how to change laws, enforcement practices and prison operations to make the justice system fairer and more cost-effective. The panel would have to complete its work in 18 months.
Two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, spoke against the amendment, saying that allowing a federal commission to examine state and local criminal justice systems would encroach on states’ rights and that the commission’s $5 million budget should be used for other purposes.
Hutchison said studying the federal system is within Congress’ powers but including state and local justice systems “is an overreach of gigantic proportions.”
“We are absolutely ignoring the Constitution if we do this,” Coburn said.
A majority of senators supported Webb’s amendment, 57-43, but it fell three votes short of the 60 needed to be added to a spending bill.
Webb blamed Republicans for blocking the legislation and vowed after the vote to keep pressing for the commission.
“Their inflammatory arguments defy reasonable explanation and were contradicted by the plain language of our legislation,” Webb said in a prepared statement. “To suggest, for example, that the nonbinding recommendations of a bipartisan commission threaten the Constitution is absurd.”
Absurd is right. If state and local law enforcement officials, prosecutors, courts, and prisons are violating the constitutional rights of their residents, then there’s a clear 14th Amendment justification for federal involvement.
But let’s be honest, here. This is some pretty blatantly selective fidelity to the Constitution. The drug war is as direct and aggressive an assault on federalism and the power of states and localities to make their own criminal justice policy as anything else the federal government does. Yet Hutchison, Coburn and the rest of the GOP senators who killed the Webb bill all support it. They also support all sorts of federal grants to local police departments. They all support letting the Pentagon give military equipment to local police departments.
Along comes a bill that would create a committee to make some non-binding suggestions that, if followed, may make it less likely that someone will be wrongfully imprisoned, or beaten by cops, or otherwise get screwed over by the criminal justice system, and suddenly all of these GOP senators get a case of the constitutional vapors.