A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected a constitutional challenge by James William Hill, Jr., to his conviction under the federal Hate Crimes Act for assaulting a gay co-worker. United States of America v. Hill, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 17731, 2019 WL 2454848. According to Circuit Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., this was the first appellate case to take up the question whether the federal statute can be used to prosecute somebody “for an unarmed assault on a coworker engaged in commercial activity at his place of work.” Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee argued strenuously in dissent that this application of the Hate Crimes Law exceeds Congress’s legislative authority.
Judge Wynn was appointed to the 4th Circuit by President Barack H. Obama. Dissenting Judge Agee was appointed by President George W. Bush. Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who voted with Wynn, was appointed by President William J. Clinton.
The facts of the case are simple and stark. Curtis Tibbs was at work as a “packer” in the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester, Virginia, on May 22, 2015, loading items from bins into boxes, scanning them and placing them on a conveyor belt to the shipping department. The defendant, Hill, worked as a “re-binner,” moving items from conveyor belts and placing them into bins along the wall. The incident was caught on surveillance video which shows Hill, unprovoked, approaching Tibbs from behind and repeatedly punching him in the face. Tibbs suffered significant bruising, cuts to his face, and a bloody nose. Tibbs went to Amazon’s in-house clinic and then to the hospital for treatment, and did not return to work during the shift.
Amazon closed down the workstation to clean up the bloody mess and redistributed work to other areas in the center. A witness from Amazon testified at Hill’s trial that the incident did not cause Amazon to miss any “critical pull times” or packaging deadlines, and notwithstanding the brief closure of that work station and Tibbs’ absence for the balance of the shift, the fulfillment center met its normal performance as a whole for the shift.
Hill was arrested and told the police that he hit Tibbs because Tibbs is gay. Hill said that “his personal belief is he didn’t like [homosexuals]” and that Tibbs “disrespected him because he is a homosexual,” and that Hill “does not like homosexuals so he punched him.” (The bracketed word is supplied by the court, undoubtedly substituted for a derogatory term for gay people.)
Because Virginia’s hate crimes law does not include sexual orientation, the local prosecutor could not prosecute Hill for a hate crime, just for ordinary assault and battery. The prosecutor decided to refer this case to the U.S. Justice Department for potential prosecution under the federal Hate Crimes Law. The Attorney General certified, as required by the federal law, that prosecution of Hill “is in the public interest and is necessary to secure substantial justice.” The local prosecutor dismissed state charges and a federal grand jury indicted Hill, finding, among other things, that Hill “interfered with commercial and other economic activity in which Tibbs was engaged at the time of the conduct, and which offense otherwise affected interstate and foreign commerce.”
This finding was necessary because Congress’s authority under the Constitution does not extend to ordinary criminal activity, which is generally the province of state law. The basis of Congress’s authority for the federal Hate Crimes Act is some connection to interstate commerce, which Article I specifically authorizes Congress to regulate. Thus, not every hate crime is subject to federal prosecution, just those that come within the sphere of the Commerce Clause by their effect on commerce between the states. If Hill had shot Tibbs using a gun that had moved interstate, the required connection could easily be made.
Hill defended against the charges by arguing that the federal Hate Crime Law is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him. U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., focused on the “as applied” challenge, and granted Hill’s motion to dismiss the indictment, concluding that an assault by Hill using only his fists – not a weapon that had moved in interstate commerce – in the packing department of an internet retailer did not have sufficient effect on interstate commerce to come within Commerce Clause jurisdiction.
The Justice Department appealed to the 4th Circuit, which reversed, 2-1, in an unpublished opinion on August 18, 2017, stating that the question whether the Commerce Clause requirement was met required factual findings that could not be decided on a motion to dismiss but required development at trial. The court sent the case back to Judge Gibney for trial, where a jury convicted Hill, based on the prosecution’s argument that Hill’s assault on Tibbs “interfered with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim was engaged at the time of the conduct.”
Hill filed a motion to set aside the verdict, renewing his argument that the government could not constitutionally prosecute him under the Hate Crimes Law, and again Judge Gibney agreed with him, setting aside the verdict. The Justice Department appealed again, and the majority of the three-judge 4th Circuit panel voted to reverse the dismissal and order the district court to reinstate the verdict against Hill.
“The Government argues that, by ‘interfering’ with Tibbs’s packaging and shipping of products, Defendant’s conduct ‘substantially affected interstate commerce,’ as that phrase has been interpreted in decisions upholding federal prosecutions for robbery and extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. Section 1951(a), and arson under 18 U.S.C. Section 844(i),” wrote Judge Wynn. “We agree,” he continued, finding that Supreme Court rulings under other statutes had made clear that jurisdiction could be based on the cumulative effect of incidents that, by themselves, may not have had a significant commercial impact.
The Hobbs Act involves robberies and burglaries that affect interstate commerce. Judge Wynn wrote that Taylor v. United States, a 2016 Supreme Court decision under the Hobbs Act, “establishes that, pursuant to its power under the Commerce Clause, Congress may proscribe violent conduct when such conduct interferes with or otherwise affects commerce over which Congress has jurisdiction. Importantly, Congress may regulate violent conduct interfering with interstate commerce even when the conduct itself has a ‘minimal’ effect on such commerce.” Judge Wynn reviewed in detail the Supreme Court’s rulings under several different federal criminal statutes to hammer home the point, concluding, “if individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation – as Tibbs was at the time of the assault – then Congress also may prohibit violent crime that interferes with or affects such individuals’ ongoing economic or commercial activity, including the type of bias-motivated assaults proscribed by the Hate Crimes Act.”
Hill’s argument turned on the clear evidence that his assault did not result in Amazon’s productivity being compromised during that shift. Wynne responded, “That Amazon was able to absorb the impact of Tibbs’ absence without missing any key shipping deadlines and that the fulfillment center’s performance during the shift impacted by Tibbs’ assault was in-line with its performance during other shifts does not call into question this determination. On the contrary, the Supreme Court and this Court repeatedly have clarified that congress may regulate interference with commerce, even if the effect of the interference on interstate commerce in an individual case is ‘minimal.’”
The rest of Wynn’s opinion expands in these ideas with numerous examples intended to counter Judge Agee’s dissenting arguments.
Judge Agee argued that the issue is not whether Tibbs was engaged in commercial activity at the time of the assault, but rather whether the bias-motivated “punch” in this case was “inherently economic activity,” which he argued it was not. By comparison, burglary and arson were, in his view, inherently economic crimes, and thus their regulation when they affected interstate commerce came appropriately within Congress’s Commerce Clause power. He also criticized Congress’s wording of the relevant statutory provision, arguing that it “does not limit the class of activities being regulated to acts that fall under Congress’s Commerce Clause power,” and thus exceeded Congress’s authority. Judge Agee appeared to be reviving Hill’s argument that the hate crimes provision is unconstitutional on its face, not just as applied to Hill. Judge Wynn explicitly rejected Agee’s argument that only “inherently economic activity” by a defendant could be regulated by Congress, citing examples from several cases.
The different views of Wynn and Agee are rooted in sharp differences on the Supreme Court as to the scope of the Commerce Power, which was dramatically shown by the famous decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012). Challengers of the ACA claimed that Congress did not have power under the Commerce Clause to pass a statute requiring individuals to purchase health insurance coverage. Defending the law, the Obama Administration argued that both the Commerce Clause and the Taxing Power could support Congress’s authority, since the ACA imposed various financial requirements akin to taxes, administered by the Internal Revenue Service. In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by the four Republican appointees in finding that Congress did not have power to enact ACA under the Commerce Clause, but joined by the four Democratic appointees (with the other Republican appointees dissenting), Roberts found that the Taxing Power would support the ACA.
Roberts’ Commerce Clause ruling was in line with decisions by the Supreme Court during the 1990s, under the leadership of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, narrowing the Court’s interpretation of Commerce Clause jurisdiction, most notably striking down a federal law banning the possession of firearms within a certain proximity to public schools and voiding a key provision of the Violence Against Women Act.
The Court’s decisions narrowing Commerce Clause jurisdiction, usually by 5-4 votes, replay a dispute of the 1930s, when a narrow view of the Commerce Clause by conservative justices was used to strike down key statutes of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, leading the president to propose expanding the membership of the Court so that he could appoint some liberal justices who would vote to uphold New Deal legislation. While the controversial legislation was pending in Congress, one of the conservative justices changed his position and voted to uphold some important New Deal legislation, taking the wind out of the sails of Roosevelt’s “Court Packing” bill. From then until the Rehnquist Court rulings, the Supreme Court allowed wide-ranging Commerce Clause jurisdiction.
President Donald J. Trump has placed three judges on the 4th Circuit, two of whom occupy seats previously held by Bush appointees, and one by a Clinton appointee. President Obama placed six judges on the Circuit, giving it a decided center-left tilt that has not been substantially affected by Trump’s appointments, so an en banc 4th Circuit, if Hill seeks such review, is likely to reaffirm the panel decision.
As Judge Wynn observed, this ruling is the first by a federal appeals court to deal with the arguments about jurisdictional support for the Hate Crimes Law in a case involving an assault without weapons in a workplace, and the Supreme Court usually does not grant review on a constitutional issue where there is not “split” of circuit court authority, so an attempt for Supreme Court review by Hill would most likely not be granted. If it were, however, consideration of this case by the Supreme Court could signal trouble for survival of the Hate Crimes Act and, depending how Justice Brett Kavanaugh votes, might provide more evidence about the degree to which his appointment has moved the Court on its Commerce Clause jurisprudence. It is worth noting, however, that the man Kavanaugh replaced, Justice Anthony Kennedy, agreed with Chief Justice Roberts’ Commerce Clause holding in the Obamacare case, so Kavanaugh’s appointment would not necessarily move the needle on the Court, assuming he would agree with Chief Justice Roberts’ Commerce Clause holding, endorse by all the Republican appointees on the Court.
Since this is a criminal prosecution of a defendant without substantial means, the case was argued by the Justice Department’s appellate branch and the federal public defender in Virginia. But the significant of the case drew amicus briefs, including one from Lambda Legal supporting the validity of the Hate Crimes Act.