Bad Laws Make Hard Cases: Hate Crime Laws and the Supreme Court’s Opinion in Wisconsin v. Mitchell

Lynn Adelman & Pamela Moorshead, Bad Laws Make Hard Cases: Hate Crime Laws and the Supreme Court’s Opinion in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 30 Gonz. L. Rev. 1 (1994).

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On October 7, 1989, a group of people gathered at the Renault apartment complex in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where some members of the group had watched the movie “Mississippi Burning” and were discussing it. They particularly noted the scene which depicted a Caucasian man hitting an African-American child who was praying. Todd Mitchell, who had joined the group, said, “There goes a white boy; go get him,” after which a group of eight to ten young, African-American males ran across the street and severely beat a 14-year-old Caucasian boy, Gregory Reddick, who was passing by.

Mitchell was convicted of battery as a party to a crime and received a two-year sentence. He was sentenced to two additional years under Wisconsin’s hate crime penalty enhancer. The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the hate crime portion of Mitchell’s conviction, holding that the enhancer punished thought in violation of the First Amendment.7 On June 11, 1993, in Wisconsin v. Mitchell,  the United States Supreme Court reversed, upholding the Wisconsin law against Todd Mitchell’s constitutional challenge.  The seven-page decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, was perfunctory. No Justice dissented. No Justice wrote separately.

The Mitchell Court dismissed important and complex First Amendment issues, almost without discussion. The decision is very broad and has serious First Amendment implications that should concern even those who agree with the Court that the Wisconsin statute is constitutional. This article will begin with a brief summary of Mitchell’s First Amendment argument. It will then explore the Supreme Court’s use of precedent to reject Mitchell’s contentions. Finally, it will assess the consequences of the decision.

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