wasn't the order of the day Thursday at the Senate Judiciary committee.
Nor was bold thinking, or even, for that matter, common sense.
"Hate crimes are modern-day lynchings and have no place in America,"
said Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, cosponsor with Oregon Republican
Gordon Smith of a hate-crimes bill that passed the committee handily.
"America will never be America with such crimes. [They] bring out
the darkest aspects of human character the dark shadows in
the souls of individuals."
current federal law, a hate-crime is defined as one motivated by
the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin. In a third
attempt in Congress to expand federal hate-crimes laws to include
sexual orientation, gender, and disability, Democrats and liberal
Republicans are supporting the "Local Law Enforcement Enhancement
Act of 2001." It passed on Thursday by a vote of 12 to 7.
Making hate crimes a federal issue requires particularly awkward
contortions. The Kennedy bill states that hate crimes substantially
affect interstate commerce by preventing targeted groups from purchasing
goods and services, obtaining or sustaining employment, or participating
in other commercial activity. The bill goes as far as to say that
eliminating racially motivated violence is an important means of
eliminating the "badges, incidents, and relics of slavery and involuntary
Following the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., and the brutal murder
of Matthew Shephard (both of whom were invoked several times in
yesterday's meeting), civil-rights leaders and gay-rights advocates
have lobbied nonstop for expanded hate-crimes laws. Echoing the
sentiments of both groups, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont
said that it is the right and the duty of the committee to protect
those who fear violence driven by prejudice. "If any committee should
speak out against hate crimes, it's the Judiciary Committee. If
we don't, who will?" Indeed.
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who offered a substitute amendment
that included a provision for a study on the effectiveness of legislation
for such crimes, argued that the Kennedy bill raises several policy
problems. Not only does it jeopardize the traditional balance struck
between the states and the federal government in the area of criminal
prosecution, the bill threatens to weaken the punishment
available for perpetrators of hate crimes. For example, in the cases
of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard, local prosecutors were able to
consider seeking the death penalty. Hatch noted that under the Kennedy
bill, local crime would be federalized therefore offering nothing
more than life in prison for "hate crime" murderers.
Finally, Hatch warned that the bill would create practical difficulties
for state and local prosecutors. Not only would prosecutors have
to determine whether a crime was indeed a hate crime, they would
have to determine whether the case should be brought in state or
federal court. "Do the supporters of this bill contemplate that
local authorities, upon learning that a suspect once made racist
statements, will have to halt their investigation and track down
an assistant attorney general here in Washington, D.C.?" asked Hatch.
Democrats unanimously voted against Hatch's amendment. "It's time,"
Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden remarked coolly, "for us to get in
pace with the rest of humanity."