Senators Hutchison and Coburn: Double Standard on States’ Rights

Oct 21, 2011

amendment, Coburn, constitution, Hutchinson, National Criminal Justice Commission Act, Oklahoma, states rights, Texas, Webb

If you’ve been following news in the drug policy world, you know that Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is sponsoring the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. The bill would create a blue-ribbon panel that, according to Webb, would “take the long-overdue step of undertaking a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system, producing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.” Among the many reasons Webb feels the commission is needed, “the number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980.” Sounds sensible enough, right?

Last night, the U.S. Senate narrowly shot down an amendment that would have established such a commission. Why? States’ rights of course.

“We are absolutely ignoring the Constitution if we do this,” said noted drug warrior Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). “We have no role … to involve ourselves in the criminal court system or the penal system in my state or any other state.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was even more incredulous: “This is the most massive encroachment on states' rights I have ever seen in this body,” she said.

Never mind that the bill wouldn’t actually change any state laws; it would only establish a commission to review policies and make non-binding recommendations. At this point, you might be curious how these senators feel about the Department of Justice threatening to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in California. So was I, so I called their offices.

“Given the senator’s strong support for states’ rights, where does s/he stand on the Department of Justice threatening to close medical marijuana dispensaries in California, even though medical marijuana is legal under state law,” I asked, after repeating each senator’s quotes above.  Not surprisingly, each time I was transferred around a couple times, given a “no comment,” and told to leave a voicemail that’ll almost certainly never be returned. Before Sen. Coburn’s office sent me to voicemail purgatory, I did get one staffer to mutter “um … well … he um … he’s opposed to medical … er, I’m not sure.”

Anyone else reminded of the Robot on Lost in Space: “does not compute?”

We will of course update this if we get any sort of official response. In the mean time, maybe you’ll have better luck than me. If you live in Texas, you can ask Sen. Hutchison again by calling 202-224-5922. If you’re reading this from Oklahoma, Sen. Coburn’s office number is 202-224-5754.