From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
April 23, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

House Takes Stand Against Hate, Passes James Byrd, Jr. Act

(AUSTIN)// The Texas House of Representatives today took a stand against hate with the passage of HB 587, the James Byrd, Jr. Act. House Bill 587, offered by Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), passed the full House 87-60, and will now go on to the Senate for debate. Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) is the sponsor of companion legislation, SB 87, and will carry HB 587 in the Senate.

The legislation will provide aid to small counties prosecuting hate murders, clarify the definition of a hate crime to conform Texas law with language upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision, assign a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office as a hate crimes director, and help victims recoup some of the costs associated with the hate crimes committed against them.

"The Texas House has sent the message that our state is not a safe haven for hate," said Ellis. "This legislation will protect all Texans from anyone who decides to act on their hate and prejudice."

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.

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.

"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."

The primary arguments against hate crimes laws -- they punish thought instead of action, create an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech and protect one group of Americans over another -- have already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court directly refuted these challenges in Wisconsin v. Mitchell. Citing several cases, Justice Rehnquist stated:

"the constitution does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations...motive plays the same role under the Wisconsin statute as it does under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, which we have previously upheld against constitutional challenge."(U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Mitchell opinion)

Regarding the argument that hate crimes laws In the Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist further stated:

"We find no merit in this contention...[t]he prospect of a citizen suppressing his bigoted beliefs for fear that evidence of such beliefs will be introduced against him at a trial if he commits a more serious offense against a person or property. This is simply too speculative a hypothesis to support." (U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Mitchell opinion)

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:

"On the evening of October 7, 1989, a group of young black men and boys, including Mitchell, gathered at an apartment complex in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Several members of the group discussed a scene from a motion picture "Mississippi Burning," in which a white man beat a young black boy who was praying. The group moved outside and Mitchell asked them: 'Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?' Shortly thereafter, a young white boy approached the group on the opposite side of the street where they were standing. As the boy walked by, Mitchell said: "You all want to f*ck somebody up? There goes a white boy; go get him.' Mitchell counted to three and pointed in the boy's direction. The group ran towards the boy, beat him severely, and stole his tennis shoes. The boy was rendered unconscious and remained in a coma for four days." (U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Mitchell opinion)

"Representative Thompson deserves our thanks and our support for her tremendous efforts to pass this important legislation," said Ellis. "Her leadership has moved Texas forward and will provide both momentum and guidance for the Senate."

For a complete transcript of the Wisconsin v. Mitchell statute, go to: