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Wisconsin, Ohio Ask High Court to Reinstate Hate-crimes Laws

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Wisconsin and Ohio this week separately asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate hate-crimes laws in their states.

The attorneys general appealed decisions by their respective state supreme courts striking down increased penalties for crimes committed out of bigotry.

In Wisconsin, Jewish organizations lined up behind an appeal, filed Monday, against a 5-2 decision in the state Supreme Court last June that found enhanced penalties unconstitutionally penalized speech and thought.

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council voted Sunday to join the Milwaukee Jewish Council and Anti-Defamation League in a friend-of-the- court brief urging the high court to hear the appeal.

The theme was echoed Wednesday when the Ohio attorney general filed an appeal urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate Ohio’s hate crimes law, struck down by the state’s Supreme Court in August in a decision akin to Wisconsin’s.

The two appeals, in conjunction with a decision by the state Supreme Court of Oregon in August to uphold a similar hate-crimes law in that state, x’make it more likely" that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide later this autumn to hear one of the appeals, said Steven Freeman, ADL’s legal director.

He said it was hard to predict whether the court would take the Wisconsin or Ohio case or both.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Friebert, a former president of the Milwaukee Jewish Council, will prepare the amicus brief on behalf of the Jewish organizations, together with the Washington law firm of Chadbourne and Parke and the ADL legal department.

NJCRAC’s signature will represent 13 national and 117 Jewish community agencies throughout the United States, said Jerome Chanes, the umbrella group’s co- director for domestic concerns.

Additional signatories will also be sought from among non-Jewish organizations, particularly those that supported passage of the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, Freeman said.

As outlined in the appeal by Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle, the Wisconsin case involves a 1989 incident in Kenosha. A young black man, Todd Mitchell, was standing with a group of younger black teen-agers after they had seen the film " "Mississippi Burning," which depicted a black child being beaten by whites.

When a white teen, Gregory Riddick, walked by, Mitchell urged the other blacks to "go get" the "white boy." They attacked Riddick, stole his tennis shoes and left him unconscious.

Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery as a party to a crime. The local court determined that Mitchell’s crime qualified for consideration under Wisconsin’s hate-crimes law, which provides enhanced penalties for crimes if a perpetrator intentionally selects the victim because of ""race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.”

Mitchell was sentenced to two years for battery, plus two years under the hate- crimes law for his motive in selecting the victim.

Mitchell appealed the additional sentence to the Wisconsin 2nd District Court of Appeals, claiming the hate-crimes law was too broad and penalized free speech. The appeal was rejected in June 1991.

Mitchell then appealed to the state Supreme Court. The majority opinion overturning the law was authored by Chief Justice Nathan Heffernan.

The attorney general’s brief quotes from the dissent of Justice Shirley Abrahamson in summarizing his position that the law "does not punish abstract beliefs or speech. The defendant’s beliefs or speech are only relevant as they relate directly to the commission of a crime.”

The brief also contends that the Wisconsin high court misunderstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning a hate crimes ordinance in St. Paul, Minn.

Unlike the Wisconsin law, Doyle argues, the St. Paul ordinance targeted certain kinds of speech, ""fighting words,” based on the content of the expression."

In Ohio, Attorney General Lee Fisher appealed an Aug. 26 state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s 1987 ethnic intimidation law violated the Constitution’s protection of free speech.

Fisher pointed to the unanimous decision in the Oregon Supreme Court to uphold an ethnic intimidation law and said the U.S. Supreme Court should accept the case because a conflict existed between state courts.

He argued, too, that recent federal court decisions have held that a judge may take into account the harm caused by a racial crime when issuing a sentence.

[Author Affiliation]

(Contributing to this report were Leon Cohen of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and the staff of the Cleveland Jewish News.)

 

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