Forty-five states and the District of Columbia provide additional penalties for crimes that they classify as “hate crimes,” over and above what would have been available if the same crime been committed with a different motivation. In 2009, President Obama signed into law a federal hate-crimes statute that adds a third level of criminalization for violent crimes that occur “because of” the victim’s “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation.”
Actual hatred is not required. It is enough that there is a causal connection between the crime and one of these grounds.
But can such far-reaching federal authority to try a defendant twice be justified under the Constitution, especially given how emotionally charged these prosecutions often are? In the absence of evidence that states are “falling down on the job,” shouldn’t such prosecutions be state-controlled? On Friday, the Supreme Court will decide if it will hear a case directly challenging part of the federal government’s claim of authority in this area.
The Obama Justice Department has argued that the part of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act that governs race is constitutional under the 13th Amendment, which reads that: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
For 85 years, that doctrine was used properly to fight against criminal laws at the state level that ensnared sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in a cycle of debt that sometimes forced them to remain on the plantations. This system of peonage roughly approximated many of the attributes of antebellum slavery. But starting with a 1968 housing-discrimination case, the Supreme Court began stretching the phrase “badges and incidents” beyond any tenuous connection to slavery. In Griffin v. Breckenridge (1971), for instance, the Court held that “the varieties of private conduct that [Congress] may make criminally punishable or civilly remediable extend far beyond the actual imposition of slavery or involuntary servitude. . . . Congress has the power under the Thirteenth Amendment rationally to determine what are the badges and the incidents of slavery.”
These subsequent decisions deviated from the Civil Rights Cases, which had explicitly rejected this extension. After noting that the 13th Amendment “has respect not to distinctions of race or class or color, but [only] to slavery,” the Court concluded that “it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of [private] discrimination. . . . Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery.”
But at least these cases were interpreting statutes passed during the Reconstruction Era, when Congress plausibly was motivated by a desire to prevent slavery from returning. Not so with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
The facts of the crime involved in Friday’s challenge before the Supreme Court are brutal but highly instructive regarding just how much the federal government is stretching its authority. In 2010, William Hatch, a restaurant worker in Farmington, N.M., conspired with two of his co-workers to persuade a mentally disabled Navajo man (known in court records only as “V.K.”) to go to the apartment of one of the workers. The three white men then drew on the man’s back with markers. “They told him they would draw ‘feathers’ and ‘native pride’ but actually drew satanic and anti-homosexual images,” according to the charges filed in court “They then shaved a swastika-shaped patch into V.K.’s hair. Finally, they heated a wire hanger on the stove and used it to brand a swastika into V.K.’s arm.”
New Mexico prosecutors charged the men with kidnapping and aggravated battery, as well as conspiracy to commit both crimes.
While state prosecution was pending, the federal government charged the assailants with violating the portion of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act that makes it a felony to physically attack a person because of his race. In May 2011, Hatch was convicted in state court of conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, but otherwise acquitted.
That same month, Hatch moved in federal court to dismiss the federal indictment, calling the law unconstitutional and claiming that Congress “lacked the authority to criminalize purely intrastate conduct of this character.”
A federal judge nevertheless accepted the Justice Department’s argument that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was authorized by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Hatch then pled guilty but reserved his right to appeal, which he did while serving 18 months on the state conviction concurrently with a 14-month sentence for the federal charge.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction. The Court expressed some doubt about the case law expanding federal authority under the 13th Amendment, but felt bound by it.
The problem with granting Congress such sweeping power under the 13th Amendment is the mischief it could encourage. Given the movement the Supreme Court has made to signal limits on Congress’s ability to legislate under the Commerce Clause, liberal legal scholars are embracing the 13th Amendment as a new catch-all justifying federal intervention in a host of areas. As Alison Somin and Gail Heriot of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights note, scholarly articles argue that the section of the 13th Amendment used to justify the 2009 federal hate-crimes law can be used to authorize the following:
Hate-speech regulation; bans on housing discrimination based on sexual orientation; federal civil remedies for victims of domestic violence; bans on racial profiling; minimum-wage laws; federal regulation of the mail-order bride industry; bans on race-based jury peremptory challenges; regulation of racial disparities in capital punishment; regulation of environmental problems in African-American communities; regulation of the use of the Confederate battle flag; federally funded job-training programs for the urban underclass; a federal ban on rape; bans on payday lending; and even changes to our nation’s “malapportioned, undemocratic presidential election system” because of its “appeasement to southern slaveholding interests.”
Predicting which of these sometimes fanciful proposals might become law in the future is impossible. But today’s fanciful academic musings often become tomorrow’s legislation, especially in the fevered atmosphere following a crisis or scandal. Before the New Deal, few would have predicted the massive growth of the Commerce Clause power that the federal government began using to regulate just about everything.
All politicians like broad grants of power, and they are likely to eventually use any such power in ways that could not have at first been imagined. The best way to prevent legislators from going beyond the limits of their constitutionally granted powers is for courts to pay close attention to the text and original meaning of the relevant constitutional provisions and vigorously enforce appropriate limits on such powers. That’s why it’s important that the Supreme Court takes up the Hatch case — not to get rid of all hate-crime laws, but to ensure that Congress does not overreach its powers.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.