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by Jessica Carreras
DETROIT – At a May 13 forum hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, lawyers and LGBT community members converged with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan to discuss the status and impact of local and federal civil rights legislation. The result was a look at how Michigan gays can enlist the help of the Department of Justice in cases of discrimination and hate crimes, as well as an update on the approaching local battle over the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Barbara McQuade, who was sworn in on Jan. 4 as the U.S. attorney for Detroit and 34 Michigan counties, has since made it her duty to restructure her office and create a special unit for civil rights work. The result – along with the passage of federal hate crimes legislation – has been a vigorous effort to protect LGBT rights as never seen before in the district.
“We want to communicate to you how important the LGBT community is to us,” McQuade told attendees of the ACLU event. “For too long, the Department of Justice has ignored this community and – no more. We are here to serve you.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pam Thompson, who handles the criminal side of civil rights prosecution, and Judy Levy, assistant U.S. attorney in the district and head of the civil rights division, spent time both explaining the federal law and talking about the importance of hate crime reporting, both for the victims and for the compilation of accurate statistics.
Thompson showed a PowerPoint presentation on the hate crimes law to show “what it can do and what it can’t do, so that when you see incidents, you’ll know what you can funnel our way and what we can prosecute for you,” explained McQuade. “We’re very eager to bring cases under this act.”
“This is the first federal statute to criminalize bias-motivated acts of violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Thompson expounded. “It’s also the most significant expansion of federal civil rights laws that has occurred in more than a decade. We are so excited about this new law and the enforcement opportunities it provides for us.”
Hate crimes cases must include bodily injury, must fall under the Commerce Clause and must meet one of four qualifications to come under the jurisdiction of the federal government, Thompson explained. Those four are when the state “lacks jurisdiction, the state requested us to intervene, the verdict or sentence that the state got when they prosecuted left unvindicted the federal interest, or the federal prosecution is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.”
In a state like Michigan, with no local hate crimes protections for sexual orientation, this means that hate crimes cases against LGBT individuals can be prosecuted under federal law.
That is, if the law holds up against the current lawsuit filed against it – which Levy is preparing to defend in Bay City court at 3:30 p.m. June 14.
The suit was filed by American Family Association of Michigan head Gary Glenn, along with three admittedly anti-gay Michigan pastors, who claim that the hate crimes legislation violates places them at risk of blame for crimes against LGBT people because of their hate speech.
“We filed a motion to dismiss the brief,” Levy explained. “We said, ‘We don’t need to go into all this litigation. We don’t need a trial, we don’t need discovery, we don’t need all those things. We just, as a matter of law, need to tell the judge to kick the case out and dismiss it.”
But beyond that, Levy’s team went further and defended the constitutionality and necessity of the law, based mainly on hate crimes statistics that show a rise in all hate crimes – including those against LGBT people.
For the openly lesbian Levy, the case is both personal and constitutional, and she reiterated the message for hate crimes victims to come forward to the U.S. attorney’s local office.
“We find ourselves at a very interesting time in history,” Levy said. “The effort of LGBT Americans to overcome discrimination and obtain a full measure of equality is one of the defining civil rights challenges of our time. Our office in Detroit is open for business in enforcing and defending the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.”
Moreover, Levy encouraged members of the LGBT community to show up to the June 14 hearing for the hate crimes lawsuit. “It would not surprise me if the plaintiffs are bringing their supporters to the courtroom,” she said, “and I think it would behoove us to do the same so that the judge understands the seriousness with which we take this statute.”