Hate Crimes Law Stands

Pastors' challenge to hate-crimes prevention law tossed out on technical grounds, though judge does not address whether 2009 law is constitutional

by Chris Geidner
Published on September 8, 2010, 5:12pm | Comments

On Tuesday, Sept. 7, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Ludington dismissed a challenge to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The lawsuit, in which two pastors and the head of the American Family Association of Michigan sued Attorney General Eric Holder, was dismissed on technical grounds. Because of this, however, Ludington did not reach the ultimate question of whether the law's penalty enhancements are constitutional.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who serves as the federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Michigan, where the case was brought, said in a news release about the decision, ''We are very pleased with the judge's ruling upholding the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law protects all of our citizens.''

The plaintiffs had argued that the law violates several of their constitutional rights, including their First Amendment speech and free exercise of religion rights, and the Equal Protection Clause, because, as Ludington characterized the argument, ''it creates an irrational distinction between different religious viewpoints on homosexuality.'' The plaintiffs also claimed that Congress lacked the ability to pass the law under the Commerce Clause.

The court, however, did not reach those issues because Ludington decided that the case could not be heard at this time, nor in a challenge brought by these plaintiffs.

The timing issue, called ripeness, relates to whether or not the harm claimed by the plaintiffs is timely enough to bring a court challenge. The issue of whether these are the appropriate plaintiffs was addressed by the judge in consideration of whether there is standing, which he found to be lacking.

Although the plaintiffs had not been charged with any violation of the act, which was signed into law by President Obama in October 2009, they sought a ''pre-enforcement declaration'' that the law was unconstitutional.

The court first addressed the standing question, noting, ''The Attorney General emphasizes that the Act prohibits only willful, violent conduct – 'willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person' or attempting to cause such injury 'through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device.'''

After detailing the potential threats of prosecution claimed by the plaintiffs, the court concluded, ''Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that 'there exists a credible threat of prosecution' under the Act.''

Therefore, the court found, ''Plaintiffs do not have standing to pursue their claims when they do not allege an 'injury in fact,' that is both 'concrete and particularized,' and 'actual or imminent''' – all of which are required in order to have standing to bring such a case to federal court.

Addressing ripeness, the court explained that the question ensures ''that courts decide only existing, substantial controversies, not hypothetical questions or possibilities.''

In finding that the claims were not ripe for review, the court concluded, ''Plaintiffs present hypothetical situations in which they believe that they will be prosecuted or subject to investigation under the Hate Crimes Act. They have not demonstrated that such situations are of 'substantial and of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant''' the relief sought, which here was a declaration that the hate-crimes law is unconstitutional.

Because the court found the plaintiffs did not have standing and that the case was not ripe for review, the substantive claim by the Attorney General's Office that the hate-crimes law is constitutional was not decided by the court.

The plaintiffs could appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.