By Patrick Leahy
A few years ago, I chose to stay at the helm of the Senate Judiciary Committee because my position there would allow me to defend the Constitution, while also protecting Vermont through my seniority on the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees.
Pushing our great nation to live up to the ideals reflected in the Constitution is not just a lofty goal. It is something that we must roll up our sleeves and work toward every day. It requires persistence and determination. It requires an unrelenting commitment to core American values. And sometimes it requires acknowledging that we made mistakes.
Our nation has faced times of great fear and stress and has sometimes reacted in ways that strayed from our core principles of democracy and freedom. But part of what makes our nation strong is that we admit to our mistakes, we learn from them, we try not to repeat them. We should not hide from the errors of the past. We should shine a spotlight on them, and analyze why they happened. And we must respond in ways that live up to our ideals.
While our country has made great progress in many areas over the past two and a half centuries, we have much work to do to continue that progress.
Perhaps one of the gravest errors this nation has made in recent decades was the CIA’s use of torture and secret prisons in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. This sustained use of torture was abhorrent and wrong, and President Obama ended the program the day he took office. But it was not until this past year that we fully understood just how brutal this program truly was. Through several investigations, the shocking details of this program were finally revealed.
Shedding light on this dark chapter was not easy. But it demonstrated to the world that America is different. We are a great nation in part because we are constantly striving to do better — and part of that process is owning up to our mistakes and learning from them.
Our government has also gone too far in intruding on Americans’ privacy rights in the name of countering terrorism. In 2013 Americans learned that the NSA had been engaging in the dragnet collection of their private telephone records for years, relying on a deeply flawed interpretation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. When this program was finally subjected to public scrutiny, it did not hold up. We now know that it has not kept us safer by thwarting terrorist attacks.
Section 215 expires in a few short weeks, on June 1, and as the expiration nears I will be working hard — across the aisle — to try to ensure that it is not reauthorized without meaningful reforms. We must end this bulk collection program once and for all.
Congress has also gone too far when it comes to criminal sentencing laws. Passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has not made us safer. But it has driven our federal prison population to historic highs — a nearly 800 percent increase in 30 years. The Bureau of Prisons now consumes nearly one third of the Justice Department’s budget, stripping away resources from public safety priorities that actually work.
I oppose all mandatory minimums and believe we should restore discretion to judges. Many senators are not there yet. But if they take a close look at the evidence, they should be. Senator Rand Paul and I introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would restore discretion to judges — and restore sanity to our sentencing system.
Living up to our principles is harder than it sounds. I am confident that we can learn from our mistakes to make this country the best we can be.
Patrick Leahy is one of Vermont’s U.S. Senators.