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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Date: Nov. 18, 2020
Location: Washington, DC

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Ms. HIRONO. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act. This legislation would formally establish the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative--or SVI-- within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, DOJ. While the SVI was created in 2015 as an initiative within the DOJ, this legislation is needed to give the initiative authorization to protect the legal interests of servicemembers, veterans, and their families. I thank Representative Escobar and Representative Taylor for introducing this important legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Our Nation owes a tremendous debt to our servicemembers, veterans, and military families for the sacrifices they make to protect our freedoms. Deployment can seriously compromise a servicemember's ability to meet obligations back home and protect their legal interests. Servicemembers and their families have been charged unlawful lease termination fees when they receive permanent change of station or deployment orders. While deployed overseas, some have been denied voting rights, while others have had their property unlawfully sold. Members of the Reserve forces and the National Guard have been unjustly discriminated against and denied employment because of their military service. Servicemembers, veterans, and their families continue to be targeted by financial scams and fraud schemes. They deserve better than this, and we must ensure that our government protects their civil rights during deployment, transition back home, and as they settle into their civilian lives.

The DOJ recognized that, while there are laws on the books to protect servicemembers, veterans, and their families, more is needed to be done by the Federal Government to improve education about what those laws are and what rights they protect and to increase Federal enforcement actions to ensure those rights are protected. To that end, the DOJ announced the creation of the SVI to further its efforts to enforce statutes that protect the civil rights of servicemembers, veterans, and their families. The SVI works closely with the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Judge Advocate General offices at military installations to educate servicemembers, veterans, and military families about their rights and how to report abuse. It also serves as a resource for anyone looking to obtain legal assistance and legal practitioners seeking information.

Through the work of the SVI, the Department of Justice has brought a number of successful claims, including one against the city and county of Honolulu in February 2018 for illegally auctioning cars belonging to servicemembers. DOJ launched an investigation into the city's actions after receiving information from a military legal assistance officer and two Navy legal assistance attorneys that Honolulu had on at least three occasions failed to obtain court orders before auctioning cars belonging to servicemembers while those servicemembers were deployed aboard U.S. Navy ships. The city had violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, SCRA, by denying these servicemembers their right to obtain a court's review of whether the auction of their vehicles should be delayed or adjusted to account for their military service. The settlement that DOJ reached with Honolulu mandated that the city ensure servicemembers receive notice that their car has been taken into custody and that the city obtain a court order or SCRA waiver prior to auctioning a car owned by an Active Duty servicemember.

The Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act recognizes the work this initiative has carried out on behalf of servicemembers, veterans, and military families in Hawaii and across the Nation by making it permanent within the DOJ. This bill also tasks the initiative with serving as legal and policy advisor to the Attorney General, and liaison between the DOJ and military departments. The SVI is further tasked with coordinating prosecution of fraud that targets servicemembers and their families and enforcing Federal laws to protect servicemembers and veterans.

I call on my colleagues in the Senate to support the DOJ's efforts to defend the rights of those who protect our country by swiftly passing the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act during the 116th Congress.

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