WASHINGTON - Late yesterday, the Justice Department sent to Congress a package of legislative proposals that will significantly enhance the department’s ability to protect the rights of members of the military and their families. The package contains three titles, with proposed amendments to each of the three servicemember civil rights statutes that the Civil Rights Division enforces. Each of these laws was enacted by Congress with broad, bipartisan support, and the proposals offered by the department will make the protections they provide even stronger.
“Our men and women in uniform and their families make sacrifices every single day for this country, and we have an obligation to take every possible measure to lessen burdens in their lives,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “These legislative proposals will give the department the tools to better protect the rights of servicemembers in the housing, lending, voting and employment contexts. We believe that this bill, if enacted, will improve the lives of those who have served so honorably to protect our freedom, our families and our nation.”
Title I of the proposal would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The SCRA suspends certain financial obligations of active duty servicemembers so that they can focus full attention on their military responsibilities without adverse consequences for themselves and their families. The relief authorized under the SCRA includes civil protections and the temporary suspension of legal proceedings in areas such as mortgage interest rate payments and foreclosure, rental agreements, and credit card and auto loans. This year the department reached its largest settlement ever under the SCRA, under which Bank of America/Countrywide will pay $20 million to resolve allegations that they illegally foreclosed upon servicemembers without court orders. The proposed legislation would further strengthen the department’s ability to enforce the SCRA by, for example, doubling the amount of civil penalties for those who violate servicemembers’ rights and permitting the Attorney General to issue civil investigative demands to obtain documents.
Title II would amend the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). In 2009, Congress amended UOCAVA by passing the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), which established new voter registration and absentee ballot procedures that states must follow in all federal elections to make sure that servicemembers and overseas voters have the opportunity to vote and to have their votes counted. During the 2010 general election, the Justice Department aggressively enforced the MOVE Act, ensuring thousands of military and overseas voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots despite the failure of some election officials to send out ballots on time. These activities constituted the largest enforcement effort by the Voting Section under any single statute in any federal election cycle.
To better address the delays in sending absentee ballots to military and overseas voters that occurred in the 2010 election cycle, and improve implementation of the MOVE Act’s new procedures, the Justice Department’s proposed amendments would, among other things, require states to submit pre-election reports on the status of ballot transmission to military and overseas voters; eliminate the waiver provision in favor of a uniform, nationwide standard that equally protects all military and overseas voters; require states that miss a deadline to mail ballots by express delivery; authorize civil penalties; and establish an express private right of action for individuals aggrieved under the act.
Title III would amend the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA entitles servicemembers to return to their civilian employment upon completion of their military service with the seniority, status and rate of pay that they would have obtained had they remained continuously employed by their civilian employer. In ad dition, USERRA protects servicemembers from discrimination in the workplace based on their military service or affiliation. The Civil Rights Division has ramped up enforcement of USERRA in the last two and half years, filing 33 cases, which exceeds the number of cases filed in the previous four years. The department’s proposals would further strengthen protection of servicemembers’ employment rights by, for example, authorizing the department to investigate and bring suit to stop a pattern or practice of USERRA violations, and allowing the United States to serve as a named plaintiff in all suits filed by the department, as opposed to only those suits filed against state employers.
For more information about the department’s work on behalf of servicemembers, please visit www.servicemembers.gov.