The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division The bravery of America’s servicemembers around the globe secures the protection of Americans’ civil rights here at home. When servicemembers are deployed, however, too often they and their family suffer hardships that the federal government can help to prevent. The Civil Rights Division enforces three key laws designed to protect the rights of members of the military and their families and has long worked with the Department of Defense, the Department of Labor, and other partners to protect the rights of our men and women in uniform. The Justice Department welcomes the introduction of new legislation, the Servicemember Protection Act, introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio), with Senators Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Coons (Del.), Al Franken (Minn.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), John Kerry (Mass.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) as original cosponsors. The legislation, which is drawn from a package of administration proposals submitted to Congress last fall, proposes amendments to the three existing laws and strengthen significantly the department’s ability to protect the rights of servicemembers and their families:
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) eases financial burdens on servicemembers by providing relief from credit obligations and court proceedings while they are in active duty. The proposed amendments would strengthen the SCRA by helping to ensure that no servicemember suffers a default judgment because duties to our country prevent that servicemember from appearing in court; by providing the department with additional tools for investigating potential violations; and by doubling the amount of available civil penalties to deter future violations. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) protects the rights of military and overseas voters to cast ballots and have their votes counted. Two of the most important ways of serving one’s Nation are defending it abroad and choosing its leaders through the democratic process, and one form of service should never interfere with the other. The proposed amendments to UOCAVA provide individuals the opportunity to sue if their voting rights are violated and would strengthen rules that require States to transmit absentee ballots to members of the military, their families, and citizens living overseas in time to vote in a federal election. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA) protects servicemembers – especially reservists -- from losing their civilian jobs or suffering other adverse employment action following military service. The proposed amendments to USERRA would provide the department with greater authority to investigate and address “pattern-or-practice” violations of the law.
The proposed legislation would also provide the Justice Department and private citizens with additional tools for enforcing other civil rights laws. The increases in civil penalties for violations of the SCRA, for example, would be accompanied by similar increases in penalties for violations of the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Such parallel changes would ensure that the Department has the same tools in its toolbox to protect the rights of all Americans under existing civil rights laws. As Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez told soldiers at Fort Knox last fall, the Civil Rights Division is committed to enforcing the law whenever there are abuses. In describing the Division’s work under the SCRA, one of the laws that new legislation proposes to expand, Assistant Attorney General Perez told soldiers that:
“[w]e will continue to aggressively enforce the law to protect all homeowners from unlawful lending practices, and to protect the rights of servicemembers who put their lives on the line on our behalf. They have our backs, and they need to know that we have theirs.”
Passage of the Servicemember Protection Act will ensure that the department can continue to give servicemembers the support they deserve.