The Constitution & Civil Justice subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on a proposed Constitutional amendment to give victims of crime additional rights during and after the prosecution of the criminal. Some states allow the victims to participate in the sentencing or plea settlement process or in other ways, and some do not in any part of criminal proceedings. The bipartisan “Victims’ Rights Amendment,” or VRA, was first proposed by President Reagan and has been championed by Members of both parties in Congress and Presidents of both parties.
One of the provisions in the VRA would entitle victims of crime “to restitution.” That’s great – I’m all for it – with no argument at all. But Committee Members should remember that the Founding Fathers already recognized that right by fashioning a civil justice system based in the God-given right to have civil claims heard before a local jury. The 7th Amendment was the only amendment in the Bill of Rights unanimously adopted by all of the original states. It reflects the centuries-old recognition of the right to civil jury trials in British law, back to the Magna Carta in 1215, and the Biblical recognition of that right in various texts in the Old Testament. The Founders described that right as “sacred” and “a valuable safeguard to liberty.”
Many victims of crime have, over the decades, exercised that right to pursue the assets of the criminal after the prosecution is completed. The successful civil suit against O.J. Simpson by the family of Ronald Goldman, who was killed in the attack, comes to mind.
And American victims of terrorism have had the specific right, added to federal law in the 1990s, to pursue restitution against state sponsors of terrorism. I’ve assisted victims of the 9-11 attacks, Qaddafi s reign of terror, and Iran-sponsored terrorism to obtain a measure of justice through legislation and administrative action. Last year, Congress enacted a special section in an Iran sanctions act to enable several groups of American victims to enforce a judgment against Iran in federal court. Recently, the first judicial ruling after that bill’s enactment was favorable to the victims, a promising development.
Members of Congress should remember that Founding Fathers didn’t consider the right to restitution to be exclusive to victims of crime or of any other specific act. They created ONE civil justice system, grounded in the unalienable right to a civil jury trial, for civil claims of all types and all origins. Victims of medical malpractice and product liability have an equal right in the eyes of God to seek restitution as victims of crime and international terrorism, and Congress shouldn’t seek to abridge those rights through “tort reform” or artificial caps on civil damages. Congress should spend its energy upholding 7th Amendment rights for all Americans in all circumstances.