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Media Alerts - United States v. Cannon - Fifth Circuit
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April 25, 2014
  United States v. Cannon - Fifth Circuit
Headline: Fifth Circuit Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Federal Hate Crimes Law.

Area of Law: Thirteenth Amendment; criminal law.

Issue Presented: Whether the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1), is a valid exercise of Congress's power under § 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Brief Summary: Defendants Cannon, Kerstetter, and McLaughlin were convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas of committing a race-motivated hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 ("Shepard-Byrd Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1). Congress passed the relevant portion of the Shepard-Byrd Act pursuant to its powers under the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Defendants appealed, arguing that the Shepard-Byrd Act is unconstitutional. They also argued that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that they attacked their victim because of his race. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed their convictions because the Supreme Court's Thirteenth Amendment precedent allows Congress to define and regulate the "badges" and "incidents" of slavery so long as their definition is rational, and the Shepard-Byrd Act survives rational basis review, and because there was sufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendants caused bodily injury to their victim because of his race.

Extended Summary: Defendants Cannon, Kerstetter, and McLaughlin were convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas of committing a race-motivated hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 ("Shepard-Byrd Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1), for a 2011 assault in Harris County, Texas. Section 249(a)(1) makes it a federal crime to "willfully cause[] bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person." Congress passed this section of the Shepard-Byrd Act pursuant to its powers under the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Defendants appealed, arguing that the relevant portion of the Shepard-Byrd Act is unconstitutional. They also argued that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that they attacked their victim because of his race.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the convictions because the Supreme Court's Thirteenth Amendment precedent, namely Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), allows Congress to define and regulate the "badges" and "incidents" of slavery so long as their definition is rational. Section 249(a)(1) of the Shepard-Byrd Act survives rational basis review because Congress could rationally determine that racially motivated violence is a badge or incident of slavery. Racially motivated violence was essential to the enslavement of African-Americans and was widely employed after the Civil War in an attempt to return African-Americans to a position of de facto enslavement. In light of these facts, it cannot be said that Congress was irrational in determining that racially motivated violence is a badge or incident of slavery. The court noted that other portions of the Shepard-Byrd Act, which apply to other protected categories and derive from other congressional powers, were not at issue in this case.

The Fifth Circuit also held there was sufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendants caused bodily injury to their victim because of his race. Accordingly, the convictions were affirmed.

Circuit Judge Elrod, the author of the majority opinion, also filed a special concurrence. The opinion expressed concern that there is a growing tension between the Supreme Court's older precedents regarding the scope of Congress's powers under § 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court's more recent decisions regarding the other Reconstruction Amendments and the Commerce Clause.

For the full opinion, please see:
https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/o...ub/12/12-20514-CR0.pdf.

Panel: Circuit Judges Reavley, Elrod, and Graves.

Argument Date: 8/5/2013

Date of Issued Opinion: 4/24/2013

Docket Number: No. 12-20514

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kirsty Davis

Counsel: Thomas Evans Chandler, U.S. Dept. of Justice, for Plaintiff-Appellee United States; Thomas S. Berg, for Defendant-Appellant Cannon; Mervyn M. Mosbacker, Jr., for Defendant-Appellant Kerstetter; and Richard B. Kuniansky, Kuniansky & Associates, for Defendant-Appellant McLaughlin.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Elrod (majority opinion and special concurrence)

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 04/25/2014 10:44 AM     5th Circuit  

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