Ruling could affect hate crimes law


WASHINGTON, May 16 (JTA) — This week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that affects a woman’s right to sue an attacker may have broad implications for the future of hate crimes legislation, a legislative priority for a number of Jewish organizations.

On Monday, the court struck down a key provision of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which allowed rape and domestic violence victims to sue their attackers in federal court.

The decision sent a message that the court intends to keep Congress’ actions in check and return power to the states.

Many Jewish groups had filed briefs in support of the act, arguing that state courts failed to take suits involving domestic violence seriously and that the act provided additional protection for victims of gender-based violence.

In its 5-4 decision, however, the court said Congress had overstepped its bounds and should not be able to regulate gender-motivated violence based on its impact on interstate commerce.

The justices are continuing a trend to restrict Congress from authorizing federal intervention in criminal investigations unless there is an economic impact.

The National Council of Jewish Woman was one of several Jewish groups expressing disappointment in the decision, saying the court’s decision “assures that women will have one less option for safety and survival.”

But aside from the issue of women’s ability to sue in federal courts, some groups believe the court’s decision could adversely affect hate crimes legislation.

The legislation, which is being promoted by the Clinton administration but bogged down in Congress, would allow federal investigations into bias-motivated crimes based on gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The case, U.S. vs. Morrison, continues a “troubling and disturbing” trend toward restricting congressional authority, according to Jeffrey Sinensky, director for national affairs and legal counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

There is a fear about the future of hate crimes legislation as long as the current court’s majority is in place, Sinensky said.

Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, said, “If you were to pass federal hate crimes legislation tomorrow, it would be challenged immediately.”

Stern believes the Supreme Court’s latest hold on federalizing criminal behavior will have a great impact on the legislative agendas of Jewish organizations that tend to focus their attention on Washington.

“The Jewish community will have to reorient itself toward the states,” Stern said.

But Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, believes that the hate crimes prevention bill will not encounter legal problems as a result of the court’s ruling because unlike the Violence Against Women Act, each individual crime prosecuted under the hate legislation must affect interstate commerce.

Recommended from JTA