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Justices to Rule Soon on State Laws Regarding Hate Crimes

By Lyle Denniston

The Supreme Court, given a chance to shape the nation’s laws against hate crimes, agreed Monday to define state power to impose added punishment for a criminal who is motivated by racial or religious bias.

Six years after its last ruling on the issue, the court said it would decide the constitutionality of a New Jersey law that gives a judge broad discretion to tack on heavier sentences when a crime results from prejudice.

The coming decision does not appear likely to deny states the power to pass hate crime laws, according to Steven E. Freeman, legal director of the Anti-Defamation League, a leading proponent of such laws. Rather, the justices will be sorting out how difficult it will be to increase the penalties when a crime results from bias against a minority individual or group.

In 1993, the court ruled in a Wisconsin case that states may increase penalties for bias-motivated offenses, saying such laws target primarily actions and not thoughts or beliefs. The Constitution generally bars punishment for one’s thoughts. But the 1993 decision left unanswered the procedures that courts would have to follow under those laws.

New Jersey was one of the first states to adopt a hate crimes law, patterning its 1981 measure after a proposal by the Anti-Defamation League. Now, 39 other states have enacted laws similar to the league’s model.

In basic outline, those laws do not create a separate offense of “hate crime.” Rather, they add to the length of sentences for crimes that are found to have been motivated by racial, religious, ethnic or other discrimination.

New Jersey’s law is somewhat unusual. The judge, not the jury, decides whether the crime was motivated by bias. In addition, the judge can draw that conclusion based on the lowest standard of proof: that the evidence of bias simply outweighs the evidence to the contrary.

In most other states, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal was motivated by discrimination.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, upholding that state’s law in June, said the Constitution does not require the tougher standard of proof or that the task be given to a jury. The extra punishment is not a specific part of the crime, but only a sentencing factor, the state court ruled.