The motto “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed above the grand entrance to the Supreme Court. Presumably these words are intended to describe what goes on inside. If the hate crimes bill adopted by the House yesterday becomes law, however, something very different will be going on.
Few people doubt that truly hideous crimes, like the murder of James Byrd (a black man chained by three white thugs to the back of a pickup truck and dragged through the streets until he died) deserve severe punishment. To me, that means the death penalty — and at least one of Byrd’s killers got exactly that, ACLU opposition to capital punishment notwithstanding.
What this shows is that we don’t need a hate crimes statute to allow courts to impose punishment that will send a message. Such statutes are misguided, however, not simply because they are unnecessary, but because they eat away at the foundations of even-handed justice.
These statutes introduce identity-group politics into law, where it has no business. Its intrusion is certain to be divisive in the worst possible sense, because it sends the Orwellian message that, before the bar of justice, where all are supposed to be equal, some are more equal than others. Such legislation also Balkanizes the culture of law, telling our citizens that, depending on the politics of the moment, criminal depredations against some groups are taken more seriously by society than identical depredations against different, “less valuable” groups. We heard enough of that in the Jim Crow era. We don’t need an echo of it now.
James Byrd did not deserve justice because he was a black person. He deserved justice because he was a person. For dealing with criminals and killers, that’s what we know, and that’s all we need to know.