04/02/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson: Federal Hate Crimes Legislation and the Case for Cooperative Federalism

When President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (the "HCPA") in 2009, supporters acknowledged that the law represented an important federal denunciation of hate crimes, but simultaneously feared that the law was largely symbolic in nature. Conversely, opponents of the federal hate crimes legislation argued that federal involvement in local cases is unnecessary and subverts the principles of federalism, especially since the majority of states have enacted some form of hate-crimes legislation. Last week, the Obama administration has shown its' willingness to exercise its authority under the law though its involvement in two tragic cases that underscore the need for federal intervention and exemplify the spirit of the law.

On March 19, the U.S Department of Justice announced that it will launch an investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American youth from Sanford, Florida. Outrage gripped the nation when local police decided not to arrest Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, who claims he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense. The Martin investigation is in its infancy, and the Justice Department has not yet decided whether it will pursue Martin's death as a hate crime. Many of those calling for Zimmerman's arrest, however, have voiced concerns that race, either explicitly or implicitly, played a role in the shooting. Within days of its announcement in the Martin death, the Department of Justice also reported that three Mississippi teens pleaded guilty to federal hate-crimes charges in the beating death of James Craig Anderson, whom the teens admitting killing because he was African-American. Only in rare circumstances does the federal government have the ability to exercise jurisdiction over such local investigations and prosecutions, and until recently, the stringent jurisdictional limitations may have prevented federal government intervention in both these cases.

The HCPA is the game-changing piece of legislation that now grants federal government authority to assist in cases like that of Anderson and Martin. Prior to the HPCA's enactment, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 represented one method the federal government could use to intervene in a local crime, but gaps in the law prevented the government from prosecuting many bias-motivated crimes. Under the Civil Rights Act, the federal government could not intervene unless victims (1) fell within a protected class (characterized by race, color, religion, or national origin) and (2) were engaged in a federal protected activity at the time of the crime (which included, among other things, enrolling in or attending any public school or public college, applying for or enjoying employment, using public accommodations or jury participation). Neither Anderson nor Martin was participating in a federally protected activity when they were killed, and thus, the Civil Rights Act would have precluded federal intervention.

The HCPA significantly expanded the federal government's authority to prosecute defendants accused of hate crimes because it dispenses with the jurisdictional requirements that made it difficult to prosecute many hate crimes. Victims no longer have to be engaged in protected activities in order to prosecute an offender. The HCPA also represents an expansion of federal authority because it protects a broader class of victims than pre-existing federal hate crimes legislation. In addition to protecting victims of violent acts based upon race, color, religion, national origin, the HCPA is the first federal legislation to protect victims of crimes where the underlying motivation was the victim's sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. Another important aspect of the HCPA is that it not only allows the federal government to initiate an investigation where local authorities have failed to vindicate the rights of a victim, but it allows the federal and state and local governments to work cooperatively to investigate and prosecute these crimes. The HCPA provides much needed federal dollars to finance costly investigations required to investigate hate crimes. Federal dollars plus local knowledge may equal better investigations and more just outcomes.

The Martin and Anderson cases demonstrate the vital role the federal government can play in investigations when there are questions surrounding the local or state government's ability or willingness to initiate a prosecution. Although Mississippi had enacted its own state hate-crimes statute, the state law was rarely enforced. In the Anderson murder, prosecutors initially charged only two of seven people involved. Despite the horrific nature of the crime, one of the teens had been charged with simple assault in state court. The same person later pleaded guilty to federal charges, and will serve a sentence commensurate with his actions. The HCPA allowed the federal government to work cooperatively with state prosecutors in Mississippi and provided valuable resources to ensure that more of those involved in Anderson's death will be brought to justice.

Similarly, the federal investigation in the Martin case, which is authorized pursuant to the HCPA, will help restore legitimacy to a case where local authorities have made myriad missteps and seriously undermined public confidence in the investigation. Despite the Florida's self-defense statute, which does not include a duty to retreat, the facts that have emerged do not conclusively indicate Zimmerman's ability to establish such a defense. In fact, Zimmerman's call to 911 reveals that he may have been the aggressor. Furthermore, the police department recently admitted they may have missed a racial slur Zimmerman used in his call to 911, a fact that buttresses the claim that racial bias may have prompted Zimmerman to follow and subsequently shoot Martin. Moreover, allegations have also swirled that the Sanford Police Department has historically failed to adequately investigate crimes against minorities. Whether the perplexing failure to arrest Zimmerman is simply a misinterpretation of the self-defense statute or something far more sinister, the nearly one million Americans who signed petitions asking the federal government to investigate the shooting, are grateful for the independent oversight. The federal government may ultimately determine that there is not enough evidence to move forward to meet the high evidentiary burden of a hate crimes prosecution. However, in this instance, the federal government is hardly subverting local authorities, but is serving to ensure accuracy in gathering and analyzing evidence where local authorities failed.

Concerns about federalism are important, but overstated. It is unnecessary, indeed impractical, for the federal government to intervene in the majority of local prosecutions, and the HCPA contains specific jurisdictional prerequisites for federal intervention. Perhaps recent events will encourage cooperative efforts between the federal and local authorities, or encourage local jurisdictions to exercise more diligence in investigating possible hate crimes, making federal intervention obsolete. Until this happens, however, the Obama administration should continue to lay the groundwork for future administrations and boldly assert its authority where the interests of justice require federal intervention. Justice for Martin and Anderson requires it.