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Putting a Face on a Bill

The mysterious death of a high school student on a volunteer trip. A missing 18-year-old girl. The abduction and assault of a recent high school graduate.

All of these tragedies led directly to bills in Congress named for the victims: Phylicia’s Law, Kristen’s Act and the Kelsey Smith Act.

It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. This session, more than 30 bills in Congress are named for people who died an untimely death, as a result of either a crime or suicide. In past years, bills have also been named for the victims of certain diseases.

One bill was inspired by the death of Phylicia Moore, a high school student who was found dead while on a class trip to work with schools and hospitals in Africa. With the help of Moore’s parents, Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) proposed Phylicia’s Law, a bill to require school districts to draw up safety plans for any overnight field trip.

Rothman said Moore’s story helped galvanize support for the bill, which currently has seven co-sponsors.

“Unfortunately, it often occurs in legislating that a personal story, often a personal tragedy, is necessary to get the attention of legislators, who are otherwise bombarded with bills on a daily basis,” he said.

The Kelsey Smith Act, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), was named for a teenager who went missing and was found dead days later, having been sexually assaulted and strangled. Investigators ultimately found Smith’s body using records showing the location of her cellphone, information that the phone company refused to release until it had been officially subpoenaed.

The bill would require phone companies to provide those records sooner during emergencies.

“This piece of legislation just points out that there’s a serious flaw in our system and that there is a way to save lives if we address it,” Jenkins said. She said she wouldn’t have known this was a problem without hearing Smith’s story.

“This bill came to me entirely because of this instance,” she said.

Jenkins said tragic stories can help bring people together to support a bill. 

“When you talk about the Kelsey Smith Act, people are reminded of the tragic loss,” she said. “It is also always easier to remember a story than ‘H.R. 847.’”

The names also help get bills passed. One of the most well-known examples was the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, named after a teenager who contracted HIV from contaminated blood. The original act to provide medical care to AIDS patients who could not otherwise afford it was passed in 1990 with 66 co-sponsors in the Senate, and it has since been reauthorized multiple times, most recently in 2009.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sponsored the 2009 reauthorization, said White’s story was key.

“Ryan White’s story humanized AIDS in a way that was critical to the passage of that bill,” he said in an email. “As a legislator, you can debate the facts and figures of a public health concern like AIDS, but when you hear moving personal accounts like Ryan’s, that’s what sticks with you.”

Still, the practice is not without critics.

Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” said it puts too much focus on the emotional response to the story of the victim.

“The problem is that naming a piece of legislation after a victim, who naturally has a lot of emotional support from both legislators and members of the public, tends to favor legislation which is not well thought through,” he said. “It tends to emphasize the emotional rather than the rational reasons.”

Silverglate has argued that Congress and state legislatures should adopt rules so that bill titles can only describe what the bills would do.
And naming bills after victims doesn’t always work.

Kristen’s Act originally passed in 2000, dedicating resources to establishing a national database of missing adults for 10 years. However, it was not reauthorized this past session.

The law, which was designed to help locate missing adults, was named for 18-year-old Kristen Modafferi, who went missing three weeks after her birthday.

“It was so frustrating to her parents because there was nothing to help find missing people her age,” said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who sponsored the original bill.

Myrick said the initial response to Kristen’s Act was favorable.

“People thought it was very reasonable,” she said, explaining that Kristen’s story had added an emotional component. “If you have an individual name attached to it, there’s a story behind it. You have the emotional aspect of connecting it to somebody’s family.”

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