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Dianne Feinstein, Victims Groups Say Senate Judiciary Actions Violate Rape Shield Rules

Claims come after letter describing sexual preferences of accuser is released

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 26: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 26: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and groups focused on domestic violence and sexual assault on Wednesday said Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans could be in violation of the federal rape shield law portion of the Violence Against Women Act.

On Tuesday, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee released a letter from Dennis Ketterer, a former weatherman for WJLA Channel 7 in Washington and one-time Democratic candidate for Congress, regarding the recent allegations made by Julie Swetnick against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Ketterer, who claimed to have had a relationship with Swetnick in the 1990s, went into detail about Swetnick’s sexual preferences, including her enjoying sex with more than one partner. Swetnick has alleged that Kavanaugh was present at parties where she was gang-raped. 

Former boyfriends of Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who have alleged Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them, have also been questioned about their relationships.

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“In the midst of an FBI investigation, Republicans are interviewing former boyfriends of both Dr. Ford and Deborah Ramirez in a transparent attempt to discredit them. Rape shield laws and the federal rules of evidence are designed precisely to stop this sort of attack. The Judiciary Committee in 1994 expressly prohibited these abuses in the Violence Against Women Act,” said Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence said Wednesday that publicizing Ketterer’s comments violates the intent of the rape shield rule, which bars evidence in sexual assaults claims to prove a victim engaged in other sexual behavior or to prove a victim’s “sexual predisposition.” The rape shield is intended to protect victims’ privacy and to prevent sexual stereotyping.

“Such a statement is unacceptable in all events, but particularly because it attempts to smear someone who has not had the opportunity to be interviewed by the FBI,” the group said in a statement.

The rape shield rule applies to civil and criminal legal proceedings, neither of which are underway in Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle. 

Congress passed a short extension of the Violence Against Women Act in late September, when it was on the brink of expiration. The extension lasts through Dec. 7, but there is not a clear path forward for full reauthorization after that.

The original VAWA legislation came together in the aftermath of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings — where Hill alleged she faced sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — and the subsequent “Year of the Woman,” when a record four women were elected to the Senate and 24 to the House in 1992.

Despite Republicans and Democrats both saying that prevention of violence against women and support for survivors is not a partisan issue, a stark party-line divide has emerged since the allegations against Kavanaugh became public.

Feinstein and the task force also condemned President Donald Trump’s mocking of on Ford’s allegation at a rally Tuesday night.

He ticked off things she does not remember about an alleged 1982 sexual assault she says was carried out on her by Kavanaugh, saying each time with a mocking tone: “I don’t know!”

(He incorrectly stated that Ford does not recall the room where the alleged attack happened. She described in detail during her testimony the upstairs bedroom in which she says Kavanaugh and friend Mark Judge trapped her before Kavanaugh assaulted her.)

“Survivors are watching as people trivialize their experiences, mock them and make what was already an excruciatingly difficult decision to come forward that much more difficult,” said the task force in a statement. The group urged the FBI to interview Swetnick, Ford and all relevant witnesses, saying “these personal attacks and victim-blaming tactics must cease.”

“The terrible treatment of Dr. Ford and Ms. Ramirez tells every woman in this country to keep sexual assault to themselves.,” said Feinstein, “We must send a different message, a message of support.”

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