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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Federal appeals court hears challenge to Thirteenth Amendment prohibitions on racial discrimination

An 11th Circuit panel heard arguments from a Florida man appealing his conviction for attempting to run a Black man off the road and calling him racial slurs.

(CN) — A white man who tried to run a Black man off a Florida road and yelled racial slurs at him asked a federal appeals court in Jacksonville on Tuesday to vacate his conviction for violating laws pertaining to 13th Amendment prohibitions.

Jordan Leahy was indicted by the government in 2022 on two counts of interfering with federally protected activities under civil rights statutes that prohibit attempted violence committed because of a victim’s race and because the victim is using a public facility.

A jury found Leahy guilty of one count for attacking the man, identified as J.T., because he was Black and was using a public road. A federal court sentenced Leahy to 24 months in prison, followed by a 36-month term of supervised release.

Leahy's attorneys argued to the 11th Circuit on Tuesday that the statute applied to him exceeds Congress’s authority under the Thirteenth Amendment, an argument the lower court denied.

U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum also expressed strong disagreement with Leahy's argument. The Obama appointee pointed to several comments Leahy made to police referring to the Black man as a "criminal" and "negro," and further stating that “these guys are animals” and saying, “Y’all have to maintain these people, keep them in their, in their areas.”

"In other words, Starkey Road is not a place where Black people are allowed in Leahy's view," Rosenbaum said.

Leahy's attorney, Adeel Bashir, said his statements do not prove that intent, due to their context of being false attempts to persuade the police that J.T. was the actual aggressor.

Rosenbaum said it doesn't make a difference if the statements were exculpatory or truthful. "He revealed what his purpose was," she said.

"He said you need to keep these people out of these areas. How much clearer could he be?" the judge added.

In the patrol car, Leahy further stated it was “crazy” that they were “gonna let this monkey fucking beat up on this fucking suburban white kid.” He continued, “what happened to America bro? Y’all let the fuckin mother fuckers from the ghetto beat up on the white suburban kid.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy Abudu, a Biden appointee, said that the context of the incident occurring in a predominately white area and Leahy telling J.T. that he was not welcome there, illuminates at least to some degree, an intent to prevent him from using the roads.

Siding with the government's argument, Rosenbaum said it seemed pretty clear that using violence to interfere with a person's right to move freely on a public road because of their race constitutes a badge or incident of slavery.

For more than a century after the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court determined that Congress’s power to legislate against the badges and incidents of slavery did not authorize it to enact legislation that broadly sought to protect African Americans from private racial discrimination that denied a person access to accommodations.

Instead, the court explained, the badges and incidents of slavery included compulsory service for another’s benefit; restrictions on freedom of movement; the inability to hold property or enter into contracts; and the incapacity to have standing in court or testify against a white person.

However, the court’s views on Congress’s enforcement power changed significantly during the Civil Rights-era and with its 1968 decision in Jones v. Alfred. In that case, the court adopted a more deferential approach, holding that Congress’s power enables it to enact laws that combat some forms of private racial discrimination that might not fall within the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, but, in Congress’s view, amount to badges or incidents of slavery.

"I don't see how we have authority to do what you want us to do, given Jones," U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom told Leahy's attorney.

The Trump appointee questioned whether the statute at issue requires a proof of specific intent to deprive one of using a public roadway as argued it does by Leahy.

In Leahy's view, the evidence shows that he engaged in racially motivated violence that coincidentally, temporarily interfered with J.T.'s use of Starkey Road.

But the government argued there is no requirement under the law to show that Leahy specifically sought to prevent J.T. from traveling on that road. Attorney Janea Lamar from the U.S. Department of Justice explained to the circuit judges that they must only prove the defendant acted “because of” the victim’s race and “because” the victim was enjoying or participating in, or had enjoyed or participated in, a protected activity.

Lamar added that this showing required a "but-for" causation, and the lower court correctly instructed the jury that this element was satisfied if they found that, "but-for the fact that J.T. was Black," Leahy would not have tried to run him off the road.

The three-judge circuit panel did not signal when they intend to issue a ruling.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Law

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