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McEntee: Vital Violence Against Women Act runs into old foe — politics

Published February 22, 2013 8:58 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Since 1994, the federal Violence Against Women Act has been a powerful tool in the crusade to protect women, girls and families from abuse and brutality that can torment, ruin and even end lives.

Now, VAWA is awaiting reauthorization in Congress. It cleared the U.S. Senate on Feb. 12, but not without resistance from 22 senators — including Utah Republicans Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who assert the act violates the U.S. Constitution.

Among the purported violations: Only state and local entities should enforce laws and prosecute any criminal, including those who abuse women and children.

Lee, a self-described constitutional expert, says the U.S. Supreme Court has said Congress cannot, under the Constitution's Commerce Clause, police domestic violence.

Tell that to the battered and abused women and children — among them American Indian women, LGBT people and undocumented immigrants — who have found protection for themselves and punishment for their attackers under VAWA.

For example, Congress already has acted to prohibit people from possessing firearms if they are charged with domestic violence. Even if the charge is a misdemeanor, the feds can come after that person's guns.

There are other objections to VAWA, including whether tribal courts should be able to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes and live on a reservation.

Angie Makomenaw is the violence-against-women coordinator at the University of Utah's Women's Resource Center. A Native American, she says only misdemeanor offenses could be tried in a tribal court; those involving serious injury or death would go to federal court, as would felony sexual assaults.

Makomenaw wonders whether VAWA opponents have ever walked onto a reservation or talked to a Native American.

"Are you afraid that someone who's committed a crime is going to be prosecuted?" she asks. "Are you protecting non-Native individuals committing crimes or protecting Native survivors?"

For Peg Coleman, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council, the question comes down to this: Are VAWA's foes deaf to the voices of battered women and children?

"Politics," she says, "doesn't mean anything to someone who's just been assaulted."

Coleman also maintains that when it comes to services for such people, there's a lot more federal funding than state dollars. Without VAWA, she says, rural programs would wither, fewer women and children would get services and agencies would lose funding.

"It's all clouded in politics," Coleman says.

Well, that's certainly true.

As I see it, Lee — along with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and Jim Risch, of Idaho — are polishing their tea party credentials by trying to undermine the federal government's ability to protect the vulnerable.

It's a position not shared by most other Republicans in Congress, and it's putting constitutional absolutism above all governments' duty to protect the defenseless. It's also heartless, in a hard-right kind of way.

As for Hatch, he was a proud sponsor of the original Violence Against Women Act in 1994, along with now Vice President Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware. Last year, Hatch opposed its reauthorization, presumably with an eye to his 2012 re-election bid.

But he has said that this term will be his last. I can't help but wonder why he continues to fight against a policy that has benefited so many women, men and children?

Whatever that answer may be, the Violence Against Women Act is a proven law that affords protection and relief to those who have suffered physical and sexual abuse that cannot be erased — but can and should be punished.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.