Steve Chapman

The existing law is mostly a curiosity, since it applies only to hate crimes in which the attacker singles out a victim on the basis of race, religion or national origin and is trying to interfere with the victim's participation in one of six federally protected activities -- going to a public school, applying for a job, serving as a grand juror and so on. Even in the most vicious cases, notes Jonathan Godfrey, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, an attacker can't be convicted "unless he is proved to have possessed both these intents."

Sen. Kennedy wants to eliminate these restrictions because they make it hard for the feds to go after hate crimes. But the change might not go down well at the Supreme Court. In 1995, it overturned the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 for exceeding Congress' authority over crime, which the court said is properly a responsibility of state and local governments.

So a federal hate crimes law may go from being a ban on extremely rare offenses to being unconstitutional. Some achievement.

That aside, expanding the law will not expand the number of hours in a day for the people who have to enforce it. The FBI says it could add hundreds of thousands of cases to its workload. Barring an increase in budgets and staffing, one of two things will happen: The feds will neglect other serious crimes that they now pursue, or they will neglect hate crimes. Which should it be?

Fortunately, any hate crimes passed over by the FBI can be tackled by local police and prosecutors. The Human Rights Campaign acknowledges that even if supporters of the bill get their way, "the vast majority of these crimes will continue to be prosecuted at the state level."

If federal licensing laws required disclosure of the ingredients in congressional legislation, here's what the label on this one would say: 90 grams of empty symbolism and 10 grams of needless duplication.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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