The issue of hate crimes legislation is the latest debate in the U.S. Senate election in Pennsylvania, with Republican Pat Toomey reiterating his 2004 position against such measures to a local news station this week.
"I think it's a bad idea for government to legislate on the basis of what they think people are thinking, what's in a person's mind or heart when they create a crime," Toomey told KDKA in Pennsylvania on Thursday. "Crime should be prosecuted for what's actually done, and it should be vigorously prosecuted... We shouldn't have a system that is designed to say now, what was so and so thinking at the time he committed his crime and let's punish him more or less depending of what we think the thought process was. That's ridiculous. People should be punished for the crime they commit."
How to prosecute hate crimes was also an issue in 2004, when Toomey ran in the GOP Senate primary against Arlen Specter. At the time, conservative judge Robert Bork endorsed Toomey in Pittsburgh and called hate crime measures "a discriminatory law enforcement device." Toomey agreed, stating, "This is an attempt to criminalize thought. It's an attempt to criminalize and add a dimension of punishment."
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Toomey's position is in line with many other conservative lawmakers. On Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law, which expanded federal hate crimes legislation to include crimes committed because of a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Thirty-five senators -- all Republican -- voted against the bill. In the House, 158 Republicans and 17 Democrats cast "no" votes. "I feel that this hate crime legislation could be considered the very definition of tyranny," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in April 2009.
It's important to note that hate crimes legislation doesn't actually go after people's "thought process"; it goes after violent crimes. The Matthew Shepard Act explicitly states that "evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense."
Toomey's opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), says he is a strong supporter of hate crimes legislation. "Those are so extremely offensive that that's why you've seen time and again Republicans and Democrats to say no," he told KDKA. "We want to make sure that type of specific, focused almost hatred -- and that's what it is -- is seen as even more offensive."