The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund has joined with a coalition of Jewish groups seeking to uphold the federal convictions of two men in the 1991 killing of Yankel Rosenbaum.
Defense attorneys for Lemrick Nelson Jr., 25, and Charles Price, 47, are claiming that two Supreme Court decisions, in 1995 and this year, have invalidated the federal statute that led to the convictions and that the government had no jurisdiction in prosecuting the pair.
But a brief filed this week by the Jewish groups argues that a 1968 civil rights statute guaranteeing freedom to conduct commerce authorizes Congress to pass laws protecting individuals who use public facilities.
"If Congress has the power to guarantee equal access to places of public accommodation, Congress also has the power to make sure people are not to be harmed as they try to use those facilities," said Norman Redlich, who prepared the brief for the American Jewish Congress.
The AJCongress is representing seven other national Jewish organizations, including all four synagogue denominational movements, and one local umbrella group.
In its brief the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, known as The Fund, argues that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in 1865, gave Congress the power not only to outlaw forced labor but all its vestiges, including civil rights violations.
"We don’t think the convictions should be overturned on the grounds that [the hate crimes statute] is an invalid use of congressional authority," said Ted Shaw, The Fund’s associate director and counsel. "There is a long history of cases that establish the authority of Congress to enforce the 13th Amendment."
Citing the defense claim that Jews are not protected by the 13th Amendment, Shaw said "we think that’s wrong a as a matter of law."
Although the Crown Heights case is of high importance to the Jewish community (stemming from one of the most notorious outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in recent history) the outcome also holds potential ramifications extending far beyond New York race relations.
Experts say a victorious appeal of this case would endanger the ability of Congress to legislate against offenses motivated by racial, religious or other biases, a top priority of both Jewish and black organizations. A Hate Crimes Prevention Act recently passed the Senate but faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives.
"There is no question that a new federal hate crimes law [would be] likely to have very restricted utility on [offenses] that would ordinarily be state crimes," said Marc Stern, the AJCongress counsel. "It would mean that the mere fact that race and religion enters into crime are not sufficient to give Congress power."
The appeal does not stand to impact on hate crimes laws passed on the state level.
Defense attorneys Trevor Headley, representing Nelson, and Darrel Paster, representing Price, cited two recent Supreme Court decisions in their appeal. One overturned a 1995 law making possession of a gun on school grounds a federal crime, while the other invalidated the 2000 Violence Against Women Act, outlawing crimes motivated by gender bias. In both cases the high court, which has leaned heavily of late toward independent states’ rights and against sweeping federal powers, ruled that Congress exceeded its jurisdiction.
The defense claims those rulings nullify their clients’ convictions under the 1968 Civil Rights Statute. Nelson and Price were found guilty of acting in concert to deprive Rosenbaum of his civil rights by obstructing his unfettered usage of a city street.
Headley and Paster did not return calls for comment as of Tuesday evening.
The brief filed by Redlich cites the so-called commerce clause of 1968, passed by Congress to strengthen the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act by protecting the rights of citizens to use facilities of interstate commerce. The clause states that "bias-motivated violence was preventing members of minority groups from exercising the civil rights protected by the 1964 Act."
Redlich says the conviction of Nelson and Price "is constitutional under two provisions of the Constitution. First, that Congress has the power under the 13th Amendment, and second, that it is justified under the commerce clause as part of Congress’s regulatory plan to guarantee equal access to places of public accommodation."
In addition to AJCongress, the brief was signed by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, established in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy, is also a party to the brief.
In arguments already heard by the court, the defense claimed that Judge David Trager’s decision to allow racial considerations in the jury makeup was illegal, although the decision was agreed upon at the time both by the defense and prosecutor.
Acquitted of state murder charges in 1992, Nelson five years later was found guilty in Brooklyn Federal Court of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights by stabbing him during the first of three nights of racial violence in the biracial Brooklyn neighborhood on Aug. 19, 1991. Price was convicted of inciting the mob that attacked Rosenbaum.
The rioting began after a car driven by a member of the late Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade struck two black children after running a red light, killing one.
Nelson is serving a 191/2-year sentence in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. Price is serving 21 years in Leavenworth, Kan.Over the past decade, the Crown Heights case has become a political football, playing a major role in the 1993 mayoral election and contests for governor and U.S. Senate. Backed by a large segment of the Jewish community, Crown Heights Jewish leaders claimed the police and City Hall failed to act swiftly to end the violence, while faulting the prosecution of Nelson by the Brooklyn district attorney and urging a federal probe that led to Nelson’s ultimate conviction.
A state report commissioned in 1993 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo found deficiencies in both the police response and the first Nelson trial. In 1998, the city paid $1.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by members of the Crown Heights Jewish community who said they were attacked during the riots.
On Tuesday, Democratic Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her support for efforts to fight the appeal.
"Hillary strongly supports the Constitutionality of the 1968 Civil Rights Law and the Supreme Court’s interpretation as addressed by this brief," said Clinton spokeswoman Karen Dunn. "This law has been an important force for ending discrimination in our society."
Clinton’s Republican opponent, Suffolk Rep. Rick Lazio, had not made a statement on the matter by Tuesday evening.