AP debate "Analysis" ignored Obama's response to allegations he refused to support sexual abuse bill

AP debate "Analysis" ignored Obama's response to allegations he refused to support sexual abuse bill

››› ››› KATHLEEN HENEHAN & ANDREW SEIFTER

An AP article on the January 21 Democratic presidential debate reported on criticism of Sen. Barack Obama over the number of "present" votes he took in the Illinois legislature, including the charge that he had failed to act with respect to "the rights of victims of sexual abuse." But the AP did not note that Obama responded specifically to the issue of his "present" vote on a particular bill that the AP mentioned having to do with sexual abuse, stating that "I actually sponsored the bill" but that "after I had sponsored it and helped to get it passed, it turned out that there was a legal provision in it that was problematic and needed to be fixed so that it wouldn't be struck down."

In a January 22 "Analysis" article about the previous night's Democratic presidential debate, the Associated Press purported to provide Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) response to criticism over the number of "present" votes he took in the Illinois legislature, but left out a part of his answer in which he responded to a specific point in the AP article. The AP quoted Obama saying: "[O]n issue after issue that is important to the American people, I haven't simply followed, I have led." But the AP did not note that Obama also responded specifically to the issue of his "present" vote on a particular bill that the AP mentioned having to do with sexual abuse. The AP omitted the part of the exchange in which Obama said, "I actually sponsored the bill" on sexual abuse, but that "after I had sponsored it and helped to get it passed, it turned out that there was a legal provision in it that was problematic and needed to be fixed so that it wouldn't be struck down."

From the January 22 AP article:

[Sen. Hillary] Clinton criticized Obama for voting "present" 130 times while he was in the Illinois state Senate, refusing to take a yes or no position on bills that would keep sex shops away from schools and limit the rights of victims of sexual abuse, among other things. [Former Sen. John] Edwards chimed in to press Obama on the issue.

"What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country?" Edwards said. "It would have been the careful and cautious thing to do, but I have a responsibility to take a position even when it has political consequences for me."

"Don't question, John, the fact that on issue after issue that is important to the American people, I haven't simply followed, I have led," Obama responded.

The second half of the debate was less personal, and Obama even allowed that former President Clinton had earned his enormous affinity in the black community when he was asked if Clinton deserved his title as the "first black president."

But while providing Obama's reply to the more general criticism of his "present" votes, reporter Nedra Pickler did not report Obama's specific response to the charge that he had failed to act with respect to "the rights of victims of sexual abuse." During the debate, Obama stated that he had sponsored a bill to protect sexual abuse victims but eventually voted "present" on the bill because, he said, it "needed to be fixed so that it wouldn't be struck down."

OBAMA: The bill with respect to privacy for victims of sexual abuse is a bill I had actually sponsored, Hillary. I actually sponsored the bill. It got through the Senate.

[applause]

That was on the back of 12 other provisions that I was able to pass in the state legislature. Nobody has worked harder than me in the Illinois state legislature to make sure that victims of sexual abuse were dealt with, partly because I've had family members who were victims of sexual abuse and I've got two daughters who I want to protect.

What happened on that particular provision was that after I had sponsored it and helped to get it passed, it turned out that there was a legal provision in it that was problematic and needed to be fixed so that it wouldn't be struck down.

Indeed, Obama signed on as a co-sponsor of Illinois Senate bill SB0943 on March 17, 1999, one day after a provision ("amendment No. 01") was added to the bill that would have allowed victims of sexual abuse to "request that the State's Attorney file a petition with the trial judge to have the court records of the case sealed," and that only "upon order of the court for good cause shown, the records may be made available for public inspection." Obama joined his Senate colleagues in unanimously passing SB943 on March 23, 1999, and the Illinois House of Representatives also unanimously passed the bill on April 27, 1999. Meanwhile, a separate bill originating in the House, HB0854, which contained identical language about the confidentiality of sexual abuse records but did not include a separate provision of the Senate bill related to mandated examinations of sexual abuse victims by hospitals, unanimously passed the House on March 23, 1999, and then moved to the Senate for consideration. However, before the House bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and came to a vote in the Senate, "the Illinois Press Association argued that the measure violates the First Amendment" and Obama "agreed that the bill probably wouldn't pass constitutional muster," as the Springfield, Illinois, State Journal-Register reported on April 28, 1999. Obama joined two other Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in voting "present" on the House version of the bill on April 27, 1999, according to the State Journal-Register, and then was the only member of the full Illinois Senate to vote "present" on the House version of the bill, which the Senate passed on May 11. The Senate version of the bill -- which also would have mandated examinations of victims by hospitals -- was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. George Ryan (R) on July 23, but Ryan signed the House version of the bill into law on July 29.

From the April 28, 1999, report in the State Journal-Register:

One set of state lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. George Ryan on Tuesday allowing victims of sex crimes to have their criminal case files sealed, even as legislators from the other chamber questioned whether the measure was constitutional.

Under the bill, the trials involving sex crimes would remain open, but upon a conviction, a victim of a sex crime could ask a state's attorney to petition a judge to seal the records of the case. If the judge agreed, the public could not open those records unless someone petitioned the court and showed good cause.

The Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault pushed the bill after a victim's co-worker researched the details of her assault in court files. The victim later realized, to her horror, that anyone could look up court files on criminal cases, including sex crimes.

"When you talk about rape or child molestation ... it's a very personal matter," said Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis, R-Zion, who helped push the bill in a Senate committee Tuesday.

But the Illinois Press Association argued that the measure violates the First Amendment. The U.S. Constitution does not allow judges to seal the records of trials that have been held in open court, said association attorney Don Craven.

Besides, Craven argued, the legislation does not allow defendants the same opportunity if they're found not guilty. And there's no indication what would happen to the case files if the verdict were appealed.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, agreed that the bill probably wouldn't pass constitutional muster, although he said it's not unusual for his colleagues to pass such measures to show political resolve.

Both the House and the Senate had unanimously passed separate bills with the same language last month. Both bills then switched chambers to be considered again.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday passed the House bill, 7-0, with Obama and two others voting present. But at the same time, the full House unanimously passed the Senate bill, which had the same language, so that bill is headed to Ryan's desk.

From the January 21 CNN Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina:

CLINTON: Just a minute. In the Illinois state Senate, Senator Obama voted 130 times "present." That's not "yes," that's not "no." That's "maybe." And on issue after issue that really were hard to explain or understand, you know, voted "present" on keeping sex shops away from schools, voted present on limiting the rights of victims of sexual abuse, voted "present" time and time again. And anytime anyone raises that, there's always some kind of explanation like you just heard about the 30 percent. It's just very difficult to get a straight answer, and that's what we are probing for.

OBAMA: I feel bad for John --

WOLF BLITZER (debate moderator): Yeah, I know.

[applause]

OBAMA: -- because I know John's not getting a lot of time here. Let me just respond to this.

EDWARDS: You don't feel that bad.

OBAMA: I feel pretty bad, I do. I feel pretty bad. But let's just respond to the example that was just thrown out.

The bill with respect to privacy for victims of sexual abuse is a bill I had actually sponsored, Hillary. I actually sponsored the bill. It got through the Senate.

[applause]

That was on the back of 12 other provisions that I was able to pass in the state legislature. Nobody has worked harder than me in the Illinois state legislature to make sure that victims of sexual abuse were dealt with, partly because I've had family members who were victims of sexual abuse and I've got two daughters who I want to protect.

What happened on that particular provision was that after I had sponsored it and helped to get it passed, it turned out that there was a legal provision in it that was problematic and needed to be fixed so that it wouldn't be struck down.

But when you comb my 4,000 votes in Illinois, choose one --

[applause]

-- try to present it in the worst possible light, that does have to be answered. That does have to be answered.

And as I said before, the reason this makes a difference -- and I understand that most viewers want to know, "How am I going to get helped in terms of paying my health care? How am I going help -- get help being able to go to college?"

All those things are important. But what's also important is that people are not just willing to say anything to get elected. And --

[applause]

BLITZER: Senator --

OBAMA: -- that's what I have tried to do in this campaign, is try to maintain a certain credibility.

I don't mind having policy debates with Senator Clinton or Senator Edwards. But what I don't enjoy is spending the week or two weeks or the last month having to answer to these kinds of criticisms that are not factually accurate.

[applause]

And the press has looked at them. They are not accurate. And you need to present them as accurate.

BLITZER: We're going to be coming back.

CLINTON: Well, that law is still on the books. It was never struck down. That was there.

BLITZER: We're going to be visiting all these subjects, but I just want Senator Edwards to weigh in. Suzanne's got an excellent question coming up.

Go ahead.

[laughter]

EDWARDS: She's been wanting to ask it, too.

Can I just ask, though, before I do -- I mean, I hear the back and forth on this one particular vote, but it is -- I do think it's important, and I mentioned this about Senator Clinton earlier, to be fair, about Social Security. I do think it's important whether you're willing to take hard positions. I mean, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are sitting in front of me right know they have to go to the floor of the House every day and vote on hard issues. And they have to vote up or down or not show up to vote -- one of those three choices. What I didn't hear was an explanation for why over a hundred times you voted "present" instead of "yes" or "no" when you had a choice to vote up or down.

[applause]

OBAMA: I'll be happy to answer it. Because in Illinois, oftentimes you vote "present" in order to indicate that you had problems with a bill that otherwise you might be willing to vote for. And oftentimes you'd have a strategy that would help move the thing forward.

Keep in mind, John, I voted for 4,000 bills. And if you want to know whether or not I worked on tough stuff, I passed the first racial --

EDWARDS: I don't question whether you worked on tough stuff.

OBAMA: No, no, no. Hold on a second.

EDWARDS: I don't question whether you worked on tough stuff.

OBAMA: No, no. But you --

EDWARDS: The question is, why would you over 100 times vote "present"?

OBAMA: John --

EDWARDS: I mean, every one of us -- every one -- you've criticized --

OBAMA: I understand.

EDWARDS: -- Hillary, you've criticized me --

OBAMA: Right.

EDWARDS: -- for our votes. We've cast hundreds and hundreds of votes. What you're criticizing her for, by the way, you've done to us, which is you pick this vote and that vote out of the hundreds that we've cast.

[applause]

OBAMA: No.

EDWARDS: And what -- all I'm saying is, what's fair is fair. You have every right to defend any vote. You do.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

EDWARDS: And I respect your right to do that on any substantive issue. It does not make sense to me -- and what if I had just not shown up --

OBAMA: John, John, Illinois --

EDWARDS: Wait, wait, wait. Wait, let me finish.

OBAMA: Hold on a second.

EDWARDS: What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country? It would have been safe for me politically.

OBAMA: No.

EDWARDS: It would have been the careful and cautious thing to do, but I have a responsibility to take a position --

OBAMA: John, you are abs--

EDWARDS: -- even when it has political consequences for me.

[applause]

OBAMA: You are absolutely right. Most of these did not have political consequences. This -- most of these were technical problems with a piece of legislation that ended up getting modified.

But let's talk about taking on tough votes. I mean, I am somebody who led on reforming a death-penalty system that was broken in Illinois, that nobody thought was good politics, but was the right thing to do.

[applause]

I opposed legislation that now is being used against me politically to make sure that juveniles were not put in the criminal-justice system as adults, even though it was not the smart thing to do politically. It was not smart for me to oppose the war at the start of this war, but I did so because it was the right thing to do.

[applause]

So I understand that Illinois has a different system than Congress, and that -- it is fine to try to use that politically. But don't question, John, the fact that on issue after issue that is important to the American people, I haven't simply followed, I have led.

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Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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