WASHINGTON -- "Hate crime" laws in force all across the country, including Maryland, may withstand a heavy constitutional challenge in coming weeks -- if justices of the Supreme Court vote then the way they talked yesterday.
In a one-hour hearing, the members of the court sent unusually strong hints that a majority could support laws punishing crimes more severely if the criminals picked out a minority victim.
Several of the justices taking an active part in questioning lawyers in a major test case from Wisconsin voiced worry about the impact on society and on a host of other anti-discrimination laws if a decision emerged against state "hate crime" laws.
Justice Byron R. White, for example, suggested that such a decision would imperil the 1870 law that makes it a federal crime for police or other officials to violate someone's civil rights. That was the law used to convict two Los Angeles policemen last week for their roles in the beating of motorist Rodney G. King.
The federal law, Mr. White suggested, could not stand if it were tested by the same constitutional rule that led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to nullify that state's "hate crime" law.
Justice Antonin Scalia also commented that federal laws against treason and espionage and against racial and other biases in the work place might be threatened, too, if the court went too far to forbid prosecution based on negative attitudes.
Maryland, 45 other states and Washington, D.C., have laws against crimes of bias or prejudice. Some, like Maryland's, outlaw directly acts that are based on the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin.
Others, like the Wisconsin law before the court yesterday, impose added penalties when ordinary crimes are aimed at minority victims.
The Wisconsin law was struck down by that state's Supreme Court in June because, the state court said, it does not just punish illegal conduct, but also the biased thought that led to the crime.
James E. Doyle, the state attorney general, told the court that Wisconsin had patterned the law after a wide variety of anti-discrimination laws.
The law, he said, was intended to deal with the social evil of racial crimes, not the thoughts of hatred behind such crimes.
Mr. Doyle's strongest ally on the court appeared to be Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who made comments and asked questions that amounted to a strong defense of the power of government to deal with "the substantive evil" of hate for minorities, whatever the beliefs of those committing such crimes.
But the lawyer challenging the Wisconsin law, Lynn S. Adelman of Milwaukee, said that law did nothing but punish disapproved thoughts.
He represents a young Kenosha, Wis., black man who got an extra sentence for his role in an assault on a white teen-ager.