Four Lawmakers Vote Against House Bill to Make Lynching Federal Hate Crime, Cite 'Government Overreach'

Historic legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime passed the House by near-unanimous consent Wednesday—with four representatives opposing it.

Three Republicans voted against the measure: GOP members Ted Yoho of Florida, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. The chamber's lone Independent, Justin Amash of Michigan—who famously switched from Republican to Independent over his support for impeaching President Donald Trump—also voted no.

Sixteen members did not vote. The proposal, however, received broad bipartisan support and passed 410-4.

Republicans accused the legislation of being an overreach by the federal government and encroaching on states' rights. The legislation, if enacted, would add lynching to the list of current criminal civil rights violations.

"The Constitution specifies only a handful of federal crimes and leaves the rest to individual states to prosecute," Massie told Newsweek in a statement. "In addition, this bill expands current federal 'hate crime' laws. A crime is a crime, and all victims deserve equal justice. Adding enhanced penalties for 'hate' tends to endanger other liberties, such as freedom of speech."

Although Yoho said he'll continue to condemn the "horrific act of lynching" and advocate for perpetrators to receive the "harshest penalty under the law," the retiring congressman also felt the text took away too much power from states and was redundant.

"This bill today is an overreach of the federal government and encroaches on the principles of federalism," the retiring lawmaker told Newsweek in a statement. "Hate crimes fall under the jurisdiction of states, which has led to 46 states producing various hate crime statutes. In my home state of Florida, these crimes are already under state government jurisdiction and are punishable up to death."

Gohmert said on the House floor he would prefer that states penalize the guilty party for lynching so they can face capital punishment.

"I would much rather, if someone is lynched in Texas, they be subject under Texas law to the death penalty," he said.

Amash cited similar reasons as Republicans for opposing the bipartisan bill. Citing already existing law that prohibits lynching, he feared it could lead to unintended consequences because the measure was redundant and amounted to "federalization of criminal law."

"Creating federal crimes for matters that are normally handled by the state obscures which government—federal or state—is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the crime, and it gives power to unelected federal officials whom voters can't directly hold accountable," Amash wrote in a series of tweets explaining his vote.

"This allows state officials who don't adequately address particular crimes to shift blame and avoid accountability," he continued. "At the same time, it creates an incentive for budget-constrained state and local governments not to prosecute crimes and instead leave it to the feds."

Four lawmakers oppose antilynching bill
Republican Representative Louie Gohmert listens during the House Judiciary Committee's markup of House Resolution 755, Articles of Impeachment Against President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on December 12, 2019. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Previous attempts by Congress since 1900 to pass similar legislation repeatedly failed. The Senate approved a similar version by unanimous consent in February 2019. But because of minor discrepancies, the Senate will need to vote on the House's in order for it to land on the president's desk for approval. If the measure becomes law, violators would face substantial fines and/or jail time.

Between 1877 and 1950, the Equal Justice Initiative estimates that more than 4,000 black people were lynched in a dozen states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The bill, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was written after the 1955 racist murder of a black teenager in Mississippi, which spawned civil rights action.

"This legislation will not erase the stain of lynching and racist violence, but it will help shine the light of truth on the injustices of the past so that we can heal our nation and build a better, safer future for all of our children," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the floor.

This story was updated to include remarks from Reps. Ted Yoho, Louie Gohmert and Justin Amash.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Thomas Massie represents Virginia. He represents Kentucky.