WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, given a chance to shape the nation's laws against hate crimes, agreed yesterday 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 M. Freeman, legal director of the Anti-Defamation League, a leading proponent of such laws. Rather, the justices will be sorting out how high a standard states would have to meet before they could increase the penalties when a crime results from bias against an 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-crime law, patterning its 1981 measure after a proposal by the Anti-Defamation League. Now, 38 other states -- including Maryland -- and the District of Columbia 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.
Under Maryland's law, for example, to obtain a heavier sentence, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was a result of bias. That must be proved separately from proof of guilt for the crime itself.
In Maryland, if the underlying crime was a felony, an additional 10 years can be added to the sentence. If the case involved a felony and the victim died, an extra 20 years can be tacked on. If the underlying crime was a misdemeanor, three extra years can be tacked on to the sentence. Even without proof of a biased motive, the underlying crime would still be punished.
Judge decides in New Jersey
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.
Most of the other states' hate-crime laws, by contrast, are similar to Maryland's: To gain the heavier sentence, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal was motivated by discrimination.
A federal hate-crime law also requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt before a hate crime can lead to extra punishment.
New Jersey's state supreme court, upholding that state's law in June, said the Constitution requires neither the tougher standard of proof nor 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.
The law's constitutionality was challenged in an appeal to the justices by Charles C. Apprendi Jr., a pharmacist in Vineland, N.J., who asked the court to overturn his 12-year prison sentence under the state law.
Apprendi had been given a heavier punishment for the crime of possessing a gun with an unlawful purpose. Prosecutors accused him of firing shots into the home of a black family living near him. Apprendi, who is white, told the police who arrested him that he committed the shooting to "give them a message" that they were not welcome in the neighborhood. They were the only blacks living in that area.
His crime usually carries a sentence of between five and 10 years in prison. After a judge found that Apprendi had been motivated by racial bias, he was given a 12-year sentence, with no chance of parole for at least four years.
A ruling on the case is expected sometime next year.
Texas case refused
In another order yesterday, the court refused, over two justices' dissents, to rule on the constitutionality of permitting a child who was a witness to a crime to testify by closed-circuit television, rather than in person in the courtroom.
The case involved a 6-year-old girl who was permitted to appear only via television as a witness against her uncle, who was on trial in Burnet, Texas, for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. The 6-year-old watched the assault through a window.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's refusal to hear the dispute, arguing that the lower court ruling diminished the right of the man on trial to confront his accuser.
The court also held a hearing yesterday on a case from Vermont that could determine the constitutionality of the federal government's main "whistle-blower" law. Under that law, private individuals may share in the proceeds if they successfully show in a lawsuit that someone has falsely charged a federal agency for goods or services.
The justices are weighing the
issue of whether it is unconstitutional to let any private person sue on the government's behalf. While the justices actively questioned three lawyers in the case yesterday, they gave few hints of how they will rule.