Wisconsin v. Mitchell

LOCATION: Kenosha County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 92-515
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Wisconsin Supreme Court

CITATION: 508 US 476 (1993)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 11, 1993

James E. Doyle - on behalf of the Petitioner
Lynn S. Adelman - on behalf of the Respondent
Michael R. Dreeben - as amicus curiae, supporting Petitioner

Facts of the case

On October 7, 1989, Todd Mitchell, a young black man, instigated an attack against a young white boy. He was subsequently convicted of aggravated battery in the Circuit Court for Kenosha County. According to Wisconsin statute, Mitchell's sentence was increased, because the court found that he had selected his victim based on race. Mitchell challenged the constitutionality of the increase in his penalty, but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected his claims. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed.


Did the increase in Mitchell's sentence based on his bigoted motives violate his First Amendment rights?

Media for Wisconsin v. Mitchell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1993 in Wisconsin v. Mitchell

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in No. 92-515, Wisconsin v. Todd Mitchell.

General Doyle.

James E. Doyle:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The Wisconsin penalty enhancement statute quite simply does not punish thought and it does not punish the expression of any idea or belief.

It punishes criminal conduct.

Mr. Mitchell was and is free to think any thought he wants to think.

He was and is free to express that thought in any legitimate manner.

But when he violates the Wisconsin criminal code he subjects himself to the punishment of the State of Wisconsin, and it is perfectly appropriate for the State of Wisconsin through its legislature and courts to consider his reason for committing the crime in determining what the appropriate sentence should be.

On the face of this statute there is no reason to suggest that Wisconsin is involved in some sinister motive to control thought.

The statute is in our brief at page 3, and we believe that it quite clearly serves two very legitimate state interests.

It punishes criminal conduct and assesses the appropriate penalty range for a particular type of crime, and it addresses the harmful effects of discriminatory conduct.

Nobody suggests that Wisconsin's interest in dealing with the harmful effects of discriminatory criminal conduct are not substantial.

45 other states in this country have adopted laws of some sort attempting to deal with this problem.

Antonin Scalia:

General Doyle, your state supreme court was of the opposite view.

I mean your state supreme court said that in fact this, or in law, I don't know which, this statute does control thought.

Now, are we bound by... it's after all their statute.

It's not ours.

Are we bound by their determination as to what it is directed at?

James E. Doyle:

It is our view that the Supreme Court of Wisconsin decided in law that the Wisconsin statute punished thought.

They did not go through any kind of statutory construction, there was no issue about the meaning of a particular word, there was no discussion of legislative history, there was no ambiguity in the statute.

They came to a conclusion in which they declared that the statute punishes thought.

That is a, in my judgment a conclusory constitutional statement.

In fact that's the same as saying it violates the First Amendment.

Antonin Scalia:

But if some other state supreme court came to the same disposition that your state supreme court but used legislative history and decided as a factual matter that it had been intended to punish thought, then we would have to come out differently in your view?

James E. Doyle:

It very much depends on what the analysis was.

If it turns on the meaning of a phrase, if it turns on the meaning of what particular language means, I think you would have to respect the decisions of the state supreme court with respect to what the language is on the statute.

But when you are dealing with what the practical effect in First Amendment terms is of a particular kind of statute, and balanced against First Amendment standards, then I think that you may, that that's a First Amendment question that this Court may consider.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

You, in other words you're saying that their comments were directed to the First Amendment consequences of this statute?

James E. Doyle:

Yes, Your Honor.

And in fact in reading that opinion it's quite clear that they not only looked at the Wisconsin statute, they in fact declared what hate crime, as they declared it, hate crime statutes in general what the First Amendment consequences were.