From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
February 7, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113


James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act Clears Major Hurdle

(AUSTIN)// The James Byrd, Jr. Act cleared a major hurdle today, passing the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 5-1. Last session, the Byrd Act failed to pass the committee.

"I am very pleased by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's approval of the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act," said Senator Ellis. "Today's vote, sends a clear signal that passing the James Byrd, Jr. Act is one of our top priorities."

Senator Ellis has led the fight to punish hate crimes in Texas. In 1993, he passed legislation creating the current hate crimes statute, and requiring local and county police departments to report hate crimes statistics to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Texas' current hate crimes statute has been criticized as being too vague, overbroad, and unable to withstand constitutional challenge because of a lack of specificity in defining a hate crime. The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act would improve Texas' law by ensuring the hate crime definition closely tracks language approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1993 Wisconsin v. Mitchell case. That case defines a hate crime as one that has been proven in court to have been motivated by "the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry" of the victim. Legislation including nearly identical language passed the House last session and has passed the Senate twice, in 1993 and 1995. Currently, 42 states have hate crimes laws, including 21 that include sexual orientation in their definition.

The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will raise the penalty for a crime by one level if a jury has concluded during trial that the crime was motivated by hate. For instance, under current law, someone convicted of spray painting a swastika on a synagogue, a Class A misdemeanor, would be eligible for a maximum punishment of 1 year in jail and a $4000 fine. If convicted under the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, the maximum punishment would be enhanced to that of a state jail felony, a $10,000 fine and 10 year sentence.

"All crimes are not hate crimes, and all crimes are not equal," said Ellis. "What is worse, knocking over a mailbox or burning a cross on a the lawn of an African American family? Spray painting 'Go Longhorns' on a school wall, or a swastika on a synagogue? Hate crimes are acts of terrorism that target an entire community and we have the obligation to raise the penalty for those crimes, and send the signal that Texas will not tolerate crimes of hate, large or small."

While opponents claim hate crimes laws are an unconstitutional abridgement of the right to free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled otherwise. In the Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated: "Because the statute has no 'chilling effect' on free speech, it is not unconstitutionally overbroad. Moreover, the First Amendment permits the admission of previous declarations or statements to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent." (emphasis added)

Another criticism of hate crimes law is that it protects only certain groups, but not everyone. In fact, a strong hate crimes law protects all. The Wisconsin v. Mitchell case is a perfect example:

The James Byrd, Jr. Act will:

"Three years ago, Jasper, Texas was the site of the worst hate crime of the post-civil rights era," said Ellis. "The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will send a clear signal that Texas will not tolerate those who commit crimes of hatred, and possibly prevent the type of violence we saw in Jasper."