“Technical” Arguments Against Moral Obligations


In 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left to die by two strangers after one of them had pretended to be gay to gain the trust of Matthew, who was gay. That same year, James Byrd Jr. was beaten, pissed on, and chained and dragged 1.5 miles behind the truck of white supremacists. He was conscious for the majority of the dragging. Both men died.

In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (MSHCPA) was signed into law by Barack Obama.

Why mention this now?

Today, Senator Jeff Sessions is receiving a Congressional hearing to become Attorney General per the selection of Donald Trump. Senator Jeff Sessions led the opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

I’ve read Senator Sessions’ floor statement on the MSHCPA. As a former Federal Prosecutor, Sessions places a disclaimer upfront that his argument is largely “technical.” While his argument does have multiple “technical” facets (meaning constitutional, legal, enforcement-related, etc.), his disclaimer is meant to overshadow the fact that throughout his statement, he repeatedly claims that the LGBT community and racial minorities do not need special protection, and that such protections are not relevant to any federal interest. Let me repeat: he claims that such protections are not relevant to protecting a federal interest. 

Sessions makes a fair point about the MSHCPA being tagged onto an only tangentially related bill (the Department of Defense Reauthorization bill), but let’s not pretend that every senator and representative doesn’t approve of such tactics when it works in favor of their interests. So let’s move on from that point.

The Senator attempts to argue that the MSHCPA violates the 14th amendment which affords Equal Protection of Law to all citizens. His concern is apparently that protecting targeted minorities would sacrifice the protection of the rest of us. Repeat: affording special protections to targeted minorities would jeopardize the protection of the rest of us. 

Sessions also makes what I was initially inclined to believe was a fair argument: the MSHCPA excludes other protected minorities, such as women. Fair point? I then devised a quick and easy way to call the Senator’s bluff on this: to look up Senator Sessions’ vote on reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which afforded special protections to women: Senator Sessions voted no on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

The kicker? House Republicans largely opposed VAWA because it included protections for other minorities, such as gays, immigrants, and Native Americans. In other words, VAWA did what MSHCPA failed to do, in Sessions view. He voted no on it anyway.

From my research, I find Senator Sessions to be one of the most agitating and dangerous types of politicians: those that claim their concerns and oppositions are built on constitutionality in order to disguise their ignorance of the plight of targeted minorities. His VAWA vote confirms the ludicrousness of his claims that he rejects MSCHPA because it doesn’t protect enough vulnerable people.

As a final point, I know that naming bills after specific people or events is made to evoke a visceral reaction and emotional vote. Some deem it inappropriate, and in certain respects, I agree. However, when it comes to MSHCPA, I think it was wise and powerful to name the bill after two men who were murdered because of immutable pieces of their identity. So often in lawmaking, real-life context is lost. In the MSHCPA vote, each senator or representative had to look at the name of this bill and vote with a concrete example of what hate crimes do, right in front of their faces. And perhaps due to technical issues, senators and representatives still must vote no on namesake bills and go home to face their district’s questions. I fully acknowledge that in law, technicalities often put the nail in the coffin on what seems on its face to be a solid bill.

But personally, I think that Sessions’ transparent”technical” argument simply helps him sleep at night.