The longest-serving Democrat in the Senate on Wednesday called for scrapping mandatory minimum sentences at both the federal and state levels, and said he wants Congress to take a critical look at the way U.S. law enforcement agencies use drones.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy also said his major priority for the beginning of the new Congress will be overhauling immigration laws, and he announced hearings next month — adding momentum to an issue that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already identified as the top priority.
"Our nation relies on immigrants. We have to find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change on immigration laws, and that should include a path to citizenship," Mr. Leahy said in a speech laying out his agenda for the new year to students at Georgetown University Law Center.
He listed renewing the Violence Against Women Act and taking some action on guns as other top priorities, but veered from his prepared remarks to take particular aim at the proliferation of drones used in law enforcement.
"This fast-emerging technology is cheap, but I think just because it's available doesn't mean it helps. I think there could be a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties," he said.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Leahy has the power to call hearings to examine both sentencing and drones and to write legislation controlling them. He told reporters after his speech that he didn't have specific legislation in mind, but said the issue will draw his attention.
He compared it to "the dumb idea" of having the enhanced-screening machines at airports, which he said amount to an invasion of privacy.
"I'm afraid these drones may become the same thing," he said.
Mr. Leahy also diverted from his prepared remarks to strongly condemn mandatory minimum sentences at all levels, calling them "a great mistake" that hurts youths and minorities.
"I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done," he said. "The idea that we protect society by one size fits all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer — it just does not work in the real world."
Mr. Leahy had the chance to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which is usually considered the most powerful panel in the Senate, but he turned that down to remain at the helm of the Judiciary Committee.
In answering questions from law students, Mr. Leahy also said he will seek clarification from the administration as to how it plans to enforce federal drug laws in the face of states such as Colorado and Washington, which have moved to legalize marijuana use.
"My own predilection is, I hate to see a great deal of law enforcement resources spent on things like the possession, use of marijuana when we have murder cases, armed robbery cases, things like that that go unsolved," he said.
Any steps on gun control also will go through Mr. Leahy's committee, and he said he thinks some steps are likely, adding that he would back closing the loophole that allows private gun transactions to go through without a background check.
He also said there's no need for high-capacity ammunition magazines, and pointed to Vermont, which has a strong tradition of gun rights but also has a rule limiting hunters using semiautomatic rifles to just six rounds of ammunition during deer-hunting seasons.
"Are we really saying as a nation we're going to be more protective of the deer than we are of our children? I think not," he said.
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