High court to rule on 'hate' case Wis. ruling tests First Amendment

December 15, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, moving swiftly to keep up with the rapidly spreading controversy over "hate crimes," agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of special laws aimed at those who commit crime to express their bigotry.

Just six months after it curbed the power of state and local government to ban specific forms of "hate speech," the court took on the wider issue of state power to punish crimes of bias or prejudice.

The outcome of the new case appears likely to affect laws in 46 states, including Maryland and the District of Columbia. Those laws were adopted to try to stem the rising number of incidents believed to be caused by biased attitudes about race, sex, religion, or ethnic background.

Some of those laws, like Maryland's, make it a crime to commit an illegal act because of the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin. Others, like the Wisconsin law at the center of the Supreme Court's new test case, impose added penalties when ordinary crimes are aimed at victims because of their race, sex, sexual preference, religion or ethnic identity.

The fate of both kinds of laws appears to be at stake in the case the justices voted to hear. A final decision is expected by early next summer.

The court will be reviewing a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that struck down that state's 1987 hate crimes law. The state tribunal ruled in a split decision that the law is designed to punish "offensive motive or thought," and states may not do that because the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protects "bigoted and hateful thoughts."

The state court ruled in a case in which a 19-year-old black youth in Kenosha urged other young black men and boys to attack a 14-year-old white who was walking along a nearby street. The group of blacks had just been discussing a scene in the movie "Mississippi Burning," in which a white man beat a young black boy as he prayed.

The white youth was beaten so badly that he remained in a coma for four days and suffered what could be permanent brain damage.

The leader, Todd Mitchell, was convicted of the regular crime of "aggravated battery." Ordinarily, that crime carries a maximum jail sentence of two years. But, under the state hate crimes law, Mitchell actually got a four-year sentence for the crime because the jury found that the victim was chosen because of his race.

The state court, in voiding that added sentence, declared: "As disgraceful and deplorable as these and other hate crimes are, the personal prejudices of the attackers are protected by the First Amendment."

Earlier this month, in an advisory opinion, Maryland's state attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., disagreed with the majority in the Wisconsin ruling. Mr. Curran said that a law like Maryland's is constitutional because it is aimed at bigoted acts, not the ideas behind them. "We feel very strongly that violent conduct and destruction of property should never be given protection as expressive speech," he said.

A hate crime law in Ohio has been struck down by that state's Supreme Court, but a similar law in Oregon has been upheld by that state's highest court.

The attorneys general of 30 states, not including Maryland, joined Wisconsin in urging the Supreme Court to rule on the validity of hate crimes laws.

The constitutionality of many of those laws have been put into doubt by last June's Supreme Court ruling, which said that government may not single out certain hate messages, by speech or symbolic gesture, and outlaw only those messages. In that decision, the court struck down a St. Paul, Minn., ordinance making cross-burning a crime when done to cause "anger, alarm or resentment."

Besides voting to review the hate crime issue, the court yesterday issued its first 5-4 decision of the term, resulting in a civil rights setback. The court ruled that individuals or groups who win a civil rights lawsuit, but do not get money damages as part of the verdict, ordinarily should not be allowed to get back the fees they paid their attorneys.

That ruling came in the case of a Texan who sought $17 million in civil rights damages but won only $1 in a suit against a state official who supported a murder prosecution against him that was later dismissed. The Texan, who ran a school for troubled youths, was charged after a girl had died there.

Although the Texan "asked for a bundle [of money] and got a pittance," as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it yesterday, a federal judge awarded him $280,000 in attorney's fees for his slim victory in the case. The Supreme Court struck down that fee award.

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