FLASHBACK: Obama broke with colleagues, voted present on protecting rape victims in ’99 state Senate vote

Matthew Boyle | Investigative Reporter

In a 1999 legislative vote, then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was the sole state senator to not vote for a bill that would protect sexual assault victims from having the details of their cases revealed publicly.

On May 11 of that year, Obama voted “present” on a bill, ultimately made law, that allows victims of sex crimes to request that their cases be sealed from public view following a criminal conviction. Illinois Senate voting records show that Obama was the only senator who did not vote in favor of the bill.

Obama’s unique objection to voting for a bill meant to protect victims of sex crimes is a substantial departure from the picture he has attempted to paint for women voters.

The future president, it was reported then, questioned the bill’s constitutionality.

The legislation’s intent was to prevent public consumption of the explicit details of sex crimes without “good cause.”

“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,” reporter Joe Mahr wrote for The State Journal-Register. “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 led the charge for the law, Mahr reported, adding that the group “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.”

A contingent of schoolchildren from Obama’s Chicago district were in attendance as Obama voted “present.”

Mere minutes before, Obama had announced their presence to the Illinois State Senate chamber.

“I am pleased to say that we have today some schoolchildren from my district, for the Ancona School in Hyde Park/Kenwood area,” Obama said, according to Senate transcripts. “These are seventh and eighth graders who worked on a history project all year and are down here to observe the workings of the Senate in the State Capitol,” he said.

Obama would later vote “present” on the bill a second time when it returned to the state Senate Judiciary Committee, following passage by the state House. In that committee vote, two other state senators joined Obama in voting “present.”

As he runs for re-election, Obama has made women’s rights — and a supposed Republican “war on women” — a focal point of his campaign. Rape-related gaffes from Republican Senate candidates like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri have become springboards for Obama’s attempts to drive a political wedge between Republicans and women voters.

In a Wednesday interview with comedian Jay Leno, for instance, Obama bashed Mourdock, who implied this week that abortion should not be a viable choice for women who are raped because procreation in such cases is still an act of God’s will.

“Let me make a very simple proposition: Rape is rape,” Obama said. “It is a crime. And so these various distinctions about rape don’t make too much sense to me — don’t make any sense to me. This is exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s health care decisions.”

Obama has also tried to depict his GOP opponent Mitt Romney, with relative success, as anti-woman.

He started the election polling 16 points ahead of Romney with women. But an Associated Press poll published Thursday shows that Romney has erased that advantage and is running even among likely voters who are female.

The Obama campaign and Democrats were left scrambling Thursday to turn that tide back in their favor.

The president’s re-election campaign released a new ad Thursday morning attacking the former Massachusetts governor’s position on abortion.

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer hammered the Republican party on Twitter Thursday afternoon, claiming the “GOP doesn’t stand with women even when they are raped.”

And The New York Times reported that Obama bashed the GOP on the stump in Tampa over women’s health issues.

“As we saw again this week, I don’t think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women,” Obama repeated.

Spokespersons for the Obama campaign did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment.

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