Mitchell v. Wisconsin: Why Mitchell v. Wisconsin Sucked


On June 11, 1993, the United State Supreme Court upheld Wisconsin's
penalty enhancement law, which imposes harsher sentences on criminals who
"intentionally select the person against whom the crime...is committed..because
of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin
or ancestry of that person." Chief Justice Rehnquist deliverd the opinion of
the unanimous Court. This paper argues against the decision, and will attempt
to prove the unconstitutionality of such penalty enhancement laws.
On the evening of October 7, 1989, Mitchell and a group of young black
men attacked and severely beat a lone white boy. The group had just finished
watching the film "Mississippi Burning", in which a young black boy was, while
praying, beaten by a white man. After the film, the group moved outside and
Mitchell asked if they felt "hyped up to move on some white people". When the
white boy approached Mitchell said, "You all want to fuck somebody up? There
goes a white boy, Go get him." The boy was left unconscious, and remained in
a coma for four days. Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery, which
carries a two year maximum sentence. The Wisconsin jury, however, found that
because Mitchell selected his victim based on race, the penalty enhancement law
allowed Mitchell to be sentenced to up to seven years. The jury sentenced
Mitchell to four years, twice the maximum for the crime he committed without
the penalty enhancement law.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling was faulty, and defied a number of
precedents. The Wisconsin law is unconstitutional, and is essentially
unenforceable. This paper primarily focuses on the constitutional arguments
against Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision and the statute itself, but will
also consider the practical implications of the Wisconsin law, as well as a
similar law passed under the new federal crime bill (Cacas, 32). The Wisconsin
law and the new federal law are based on a model created by the Anti-
Defemation League in response to a rising tide of hate-related violent crimes
(Cacas, 33). Figures released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that
7,684 hate crimes motivated by race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual
orientation were reported in 1993, up from 6,623 the previous year. Of those
crimes in 1993, 62 percent were racially motivated (Cacas, 32). Certainly,
this is a problem the nation must address. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of
the United States and both the Wisconsin and federal governments have chosen to
address this problem in a way that is grossly unconstitutional.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise therof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition
the government for a redress of grievances."
The most obvious arguments against the Mitchell decision are those
dealing with the First Amendment. In fact, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled
that the state statute was unconstitutional in their decision, which the U.S.
Supreme Court overruled. The Wisconsim Supreme Court argued that the Wisconsin
penalty enhancement statute, "violates the First Amendment directly by
punishing what the legislature has deemed offensive thought." The Wisconsin
Court also rejected the state's argument "that the statute punishes only the ?
conduct' of intentional selection of a victim". The Court's contention was
that "the statute punishes the ?because of' aspect of the defendant's selection,
the reason the defendant selected the victim, the motive behind the
selection." The law is in fact a direct violation of the First Amendment,
according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which said "the Wisconsin legislature
cannot criminalize bigoted thought with which it disagrees."
"If there is a bedrock principal underlying the First Amendment, it is
that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because
society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable". The Supreme Court
was heard to utter such noble phrases as recently as 1989, in Texas v. Johnson.
Unfortunately these idealistic principles seem to have been abandoned during
Wisconsin v. Mitchell.
Clearly, Mitchell's act of assaulting another human is a punishable
crime, and no one could logiacally argue that the First Amendment protects this
clearly criminal action. However, the state's power to punish the action does
not remove the constitutional barrier to punishing the criminal's thoughts
(Cacas, 337). The First Amendment has generally been interpreted to protect
the thoughts, as well as the speech, of an individual (Cacas, 338). According
to the Court's majority opinion in Wooley v. Maynard, a 1977 case, "At the
heart of the First Amendment is the notion that an individual should be free to
believe as he will, and that in a free society one's beliefs should be shaped
by his mind and his conscience