Sixth Circuit grants Amish hair cutters new trial

Today the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Miller v. United States, in which CIR client Kathryn Miller and other Amish appealed their convictions under the federal hate crimes law for forcibly shaving the beards and cutting the hair of other Amish.  The federal hate crimes law criminalizes violent acts performed “because of religion.”

While the court recognized that religion was at least one motivation for the attacks, it held that the trial judge erred by not instructing the jury that the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that religion was a “but for” cause of them — that is, that the attacks would not have happened absent the defendants’ religious motivation.  (Here, other, personal motives may have been involved.)  The court accordingly reversed the defendants’ convictions and ordered a new trial.

The court also held that, because it ordered a new trial, it could leave the Commerce Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act challenges to the convictions undecided — even though success in either of these challenges would have given the defendants much more relief: the reversal of their convictions without any second trial.


IR is representing Kathryn Miller, an Amish woman appealing her conviction for the federal “hate crime” of participating in the forcible cutting of the beards and hair of other Amish for religious reasons. CIR contends that Congress lacks the authority under the Commerce Clause to prosecute purely instate conduct (such as assault) unless the crime affects interstate commerce in a non-trivial way.

In this case, the government implausibly contends that because the Walmart clippers used to cut the beards once crossed state lines (and, alternatively, because the defendants travelled in cars), the U.S. Attorney had the authority to prosecute Ms. Miller under the federal hate crimes statute.

Underlying CIR’s position in US v. Miller is the principle that our constitutional form of government is built on the idea of limited authority. The Constitution, embodying the belief that a government which is dispersed protects freedom best, grants to the federal government only certain, enumerated powers. All other power is reserved to the states (subject to the Bill of Rights) and to the people.

In contrast, the government takes the position that the federal government has the authority to regulate an assault involving Ohio citizens entirely within the borders of Ohio solely because of peripheral facts about where Walmart procured the clippers that it sells in its Ohio stores. In CIR’s view, the government’s theory of Congress’ Commerce Clause powers is so broad that it effectively guts the Commerce Clause.  If Congress can regulate the use of any object that ever crossed state lines, then there is nothing that Congress could not regulate.

CIR’s client, Kathryn Miller, was charged along with five other women and ten men with violating a federal hate crimes statute for the hair cutting incidents that took place in 2011. All were members of  a small Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio.  After a jury trial, Miller was found guilty and sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison; others were sentenced for periods of up to seven years.

Case Status: Case resolved on other groundss

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