Orlando's picture

    Courage, Republican-Leaning Districts, and the Matthew Shepard Act

    I live in Indiana, in the 2nd Congressional district. It includes St. Joseph County, which routinely votes Democratic. It also includes a small town, where the grand poobah of the KKK lives. Or something like that. I can never quite get their leadership terminology down. 

    My current congressman is Joe Donnelly, Democrat. I've never been all that thrilled with him, but if you believe the hype, the areas that are in his district but outside of St. Joseph County are pretty conservative. So, he often votes a different way than I would prefer. I've heard him address it. He's doing his best to represent all the people who live in his district, he says. He's doing his best to keep his job, I say.

    But whatever. I get that anyone the Republicans put up would be worse than Donnelly. If you want a better idea what I mean, take a look at the new Hair Club for Growth chairman, Chris Chocola. He used to be my congressman. 

    The Republican who challenged Donnelly in 2008 was Luke Puckett. Compared to Chocola, he really sucks. So I do understand, despite my sometimes simple mind, the need to make compromises and tradeoffs. 

    But last week, Congressman Donnelly voted against the Matthew Shepard Act. The Act, which passed in the House despite Donnelly's vote, is going to add gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity to the groups already protected under current hate crimes legislation.

    Donnelly's rationale for voting against the legislation is that there are already laws under which we can prosecute those who perpetrate violent acts, no matter what the sexual orientation of the victims.

    This is true, and I would almost even buy it as a reasoned decision, except that hate crimes protection for other minority groups has been on the books for a long time, alongside existing laws prohibiting violent crimes. So, maybe hate crimes laws have always been largely symbolic. In this case, however, symbolic legislation says to violent criminals who view members of a minority group as less worthy than they themselves, "If you choose to commit violence for the purpose of expressing your attitude that you are better than another human being not belonging to your identity group, you will be held to account."

    The Matthew Shepard Act is important, even if lawyers may argue that it is redundant, and by voting against it, Congressman Donnelly choose to protect his job rather than to protect the safety and human rights of his gay and lesbian constituents. That's not representation. That's not compromise. And that's certainly not courageous. 


    Great post, O. The penalties for hate crimes are higher, so hate crime laws are not merely symbolic. Furthermore, the act "provides the DOJ with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions either by lending assistance or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable to act, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated, violent crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury." This is particularly relevant to Indiana, which is one of only five states without hate crime laws on the books.

    In addition to classifying crimes movitated by the victim's gender, disability or sexual orientation as hate crimes, the Matthew Shepard Act also eliminates "a serious limitation on federal involvment under existing law which requires that a victim of a bias-motivated crime was attacked because he/she was engaged in a specified federally-protected activity such as voting, serving on a jury or attending school."

    In short, Donnelly's rationale is a rationalization or in legal terms, a load of crap.

    PS Your post is #1 in google news searches on "Matthew Shepard Act."

    Yay for the Google!

    And Larry's got #1 for "jesus license plates." It's a dagblog news sweep.

    Yay for Orlando!  Yay for Dagblog! 

    There are already penalties in place for someone who commits a violent act.  To take into account a person's opinions or motivation for committing a crime is secondary to the crime itself.  Furthermore, it is tantamount the government approving or disapproving of a person's personal opinions - ie establishing the notion of a "thought crime."  It is not illegal to be a bigoted arsehole, it is illegal to kill someone.  While we all agree being a bigoted arsehole is wrong and idiotic, the government is not in the business of regulating stupid people's opinions.  However, should a bigoted moron decide to become violent, then the government fully in it's bounds to hold them accountable.  

    Hate crimes legislation puts the government in the business of regulating citizens' thoughts.  I agree people who commit violent acts for bigoted reasons are even more heinous than the criminal motivated by money, but I'd rather the government keep their claws off the citizenry's brains.

    While motive for committing a crime may be secondary to the crime itself, it's not exactly secondary to the charges brought. Otherwise, we'd have charges of robbery, burglary, murder, larceny, etc. No degrees, no aggravation, no grand anything. We do have those qualifiers, which tells me that somebody, or a whole bunch of somebodies, gave some careful consideration to what penalties to apply based on what the motivation was. How is the motive of hate based on identifying factors any different?

    Three things, Orlando:

    If you're a Blue Dog, you've got to fly your conservative colors every now and then. Given how easily this bill was going to pass in the House, Donnelly could vote no at little cost from fellow Democrats and at no risk to its passage.

    The law already takes mental state into account in many ways, such as degree of premeditation. As long as there's an underlying crime that's been proved, I have no problem with increasing penalties if bigotry is the motive.

    Finally, and a bit OT, I do have some qualms with laws, such as Canada's, that attempt to criminalize "hate speech." Hate speech should be pointed out and condemned whenever it occurs. I just don't think we should be jailing people for words -- unless they specifically advocate a criminal act.

    About five years ago, Canada added sexual orientation to the list of things you can be prosecuted for inciting hatred over, along with race, color, religion or ethnic origin. Notice anything that's missing? How about gender itself? How about age? No, you can publicly treat little old ladies with all the contempt you can muster, and the law can't touch you. Blog about what bad drivers the Chasidim are -- especially the gay ones -- and you're looking at five-to-10. (I haven't actually looked up what the maximum penalties are.)

    The worst thing about Canada's hate-speech law is that it has a built-in religious exemption. If the hatred you spew is based on what you believe in good faith your religion teaches, you get a pass. Incredible!

    "If the hatred you spew is based on what you believe in good faith your religion teaches, you get a pass."  That is just creepy as far as I'm concerned.

    I love a blog that has lawyers commenting - I get to learn something and be reminded again of the imperfections of law and the tension between ethics, morals and law in a democracy.  While I grant the difficulty in the courts mind-reading criminals, I want the hate crime laws and I want them to cover crimes against gays and transgendered people.  It would be great if we lived in a society that didn't need these kinds of laws; we need our government to protect it's individual members from the injustices of the few.  Sometimes our laws go ahead of us, sometimes they lag behind what we should do.  I am willing to grant a little government mind reading until we catch up.  

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