When Senate Republicans changed the name of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to the simpler Subcommittee on the Constitution this past January, Democrats pounced, claiming that the name change meant that Republicans did not care about civil rights or human rights. Wednesday, the Subcommittee, led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), will hold its first official hearing on a human rights issue that should be supported by Democrats: the testing of the nationwide backlog of rape kits.
After Republicans secured a majority in the Senate in the November 2014 elections, they also assumed control over the Committees and Subcommittees, including the ability to pick Chairs and names for them. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the new Judiciary Committee Chairman, announced that Cornyn, who served as Texas Attorney General and on the Texas Supreme Court before being elected to the Senate, would be chairing the Subcommittee on the Constitution.
Cornyn’s office was behind the name change. “We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights, including civil and human rights,” said Megan Mitchell, a Cornyn spokeswoman. “We will focus on these rights, along with other issues that fall under the broader umbrella of the Constitution.”
Democrats attacked the new Subcommittee name. Ben Marter, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee who previously served as its chair, told the Huffington Post that the name change “speaks to its priorities.” Added Marter, “Senator Durbin will be fighting to ensure that civil rights and human rights aren’t deleted from Congress’s agenda under Republican control.”
“Names matter,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement that called the change “discouraging.”
“This, after all, is a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the implementation and enforcement of many of our most important civil rights laws,” Zirkin continued. “Changing the name of this subcommittee is a poor start, but the proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work. We only hope that this troubling name change doesn’t foretell a heedless retreat on civil and human rights.”
Now that the Subcommittee is engaged in their “actual work,” the very first topic for public hearing is one that would normally be expected to be supported by Democrats: the ongoing efforts to end the backlog of untested rape kits around the country.
According to a press release from Cornyn’s office, there are approximately 400,000 rape kits awaiting testing nationwide. These kits contain forensic DNA evidence that can identify the perpetrator of a sexual assault. In 2011, Texas enacted a law requiring an audit of the backlog of rape kits and directing funding to the efforts. The city of Houston just recently cleared its backlog of over 6,000 kits, finding matches in about 1,000 of them.
The hearing, titled, “Taking Sexual Assault Seriously: The Rape Kit Backlog and Human Rights,” will include testimony from sexual assault victim advocates, attorneys, and criminal justice experts, and can be viewed online here.
“It’s simply unacceptable – for victims and for our criminal justice system – to have so many rape kits just sitting on a shelf collecting dust, each one with the potential to solve a crime or finally put a perpetrator behind bars,” Cornyn told Breitbart News. “While some states like Texas have made strides to correct this injustice, more still needs to be done, and we will continue to work towards ending the backlog.”
Neither the National Organization for Women (NOW) nor Planned Parenthood saw fit to post anything on their Twitter accounts or websites about this hearing on rape kit testing. To his credit, Durbin has been a vocal supporter of the Subcommittee’s efforts on this issue, posting several tweets promoting the hearing.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.