Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. That legislation would authorize $10 million a year over the next decade to create a unit at the Department of Justice that would pursue unsolved civil rights cases.
The bill is named for Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was murdered while visiting relatives in Money, Miss., in 1955. His killers were never punished.
The cold cases unit could prove vital in prosecuting men like James Ford Seale, who was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in a federal court on June 14. Had it not been for pressure from media reports and the persistence of Thomas Moore, the brother of victim Charles Moore, Seale might never have faced justice.
There is no doubt that other men continue to evade justice, hiding in the open in their old age. The cold cases legislation is our best chance for making them answer for their crimes.
The House approved the Till legislation by a vote of 422-2, but in the Senate, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., placed a hold on the legislation. Coburn, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, has said he will not support the $11.5 million Senate bill until its sponsors outline how they will pay for it.
Coburn's reason for single-handedly derailing the bill is hard to take at face value. In 2007, the DOJ budget was nearly $25 billion, with more than $6 billion for the FBI alone. Assuming similar funding in 2008, spending on the cold cases unit would represent less than a 20th of 1 percent of the department's budget. Surely, we can afford justice when it comes at such a bargain.
The senator from Oklahoma has served in Congress for many years, and he has voted in the past for measures that could be described as fiscally irresponsible. In 2005, for instance, he voted to extend President Bush's tax cuts at a cost of $69 billion while the government was running a $318 billion annual deficit.
Coburn is free to vote against the Till legislation if he chooses, but preventing a vote on the basis of a misplaced if not disingenuous commitment to fiscal responsibility is simply unacceptable. Stalling a mere $11.5 million in spending will not balance the federal budget, and it is a moral outrage that Coburn thinks he has the right to scuttle such legislation.
Justice is a central American value, and unless we do all we can to prosecute civil-rights terrorists like Seale, their crimes will haunt our national conscience.
Coburn must lift his hold immediately, and the Senate must pass the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
Coburn must be one of those stop-dredging-up-the-past people. If it were his past, he'd feel differently.