Appeals court rejects part of gender violence act

U.S. law ruled invalid in Va. rape suit

By Brook A. Masters

The Washington Post, March 6, 1999

A 1994 federal law that gave victims of rape and domestic violence the right to sue their attackers for violating their civil rights is unconstitutional, a U.S. appeals court in Richmond ruled yesterday.

The court’s 7 to 4 decision invalidates a key section of the Violence Against Women Act, a broad-based congressional response to domestic violence that also includes funding for battered women’s programs and interstate enforcement of protective orders.

The ruling means that in states under the court’s jurisdiction — Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas — victims of rape and domestic violence only will be able to sue their attackers under state tort laws, which may have lower damage caps and shorter statutes of limitations and may bar some claims against spouses.

Legal analysts said the case is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could become a vehicle for putting more limits on Congress’s ability to pass legislation in areas in which states also have authority.

Women’s groups had sharp criticism for yesterday’s decision of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of former Virginia Tech student Christy Brzonkala, who had filed a federal lawsuit against two football players she says raped her.

“This law is really important to women who are trying to seek redress for their harms,” said Laura Goldscheid, senior staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped push Brzonkala’s suit. “There’s a lot of bias in state courts. . . . The federal judiciary is where we look for protection of our civil rights.”

The appeals court found that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to open federal courts to gender-violence suits because the problem is not related to interstate commerce and does not involve state or local government violations of civil rights.

“Such a statute, we are constrained to conclude, simply cannot be reconciled with the principles of limited federal government upon which this nation is founded,” Judge J. Michael Luttig wrote in the 214-page opinion.

The generally conservative 4th Circuit is the first appeals court to take up the Violence Against Women Act, legal analysts said, but nearly a dozen U.S. District Court decisions across the country have taken a broader view of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce and have upheld the law.

The four dissenters in the case said they would have done the same thing. “Violence animated by gender bias . . . substantially affects the national economy and interstate commerce,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz. She cited expert testimony at congressional hearings that domestic violence costs $8 to $15 billion annually in health care, law enforcement and lost wages.

Attorneys for Brzonkala, now 22 and working in Washington, said she has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision, but her Richmond attorney, Eileen N. Wagner, said that one reason Brzonkala decided to sue in federal court, rather than state court, was that she wanted to be a test case for the new law.

“The Supreme Court was our original goal and I have a hard time envisioning we would pass up the test,” Wagner said. “Her idea was, ‘I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.’ ”

Meanwhile attorneys for Antonio J. Morrison, one of the two football players, said they were pleased by the decision. “We know there may be struggles ahead but we will continue to defend [Morrison] against these scurrilous charges,” said Michael Rosman, general counsel of the Center for Individual Rights.

Rosman said he believes the Supreme Court will look favorably on the appeals court’s decision. “I like our chances,” he said. “The court is growing wary of Congress passing whatever law it pleases.”

The court’s decision drew heavily on a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision that used similar reasoning to invalidate a federal law making it a crime to possess guns in schools. That 5 to 4 decision was the first in decades to strike down a law as exceeding Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Since that decision, in U.S. v. Flores, analysts said, scholars and practitioners have wondered whether the Violence Against Women Act would survive a similar challenge because it, too, lacks an obvious commerce connection.

The act, however, does have several advantages over the guns in schools law, analysts said. In the Flores case, Congress made no attempt to show there was a connection to interstate commerce and it overlapped heavily with existing state laws on guns.

In contrast, the Violence Against Women Act came after multiple hearings on the flaws in the way states handle domestic violence and included testimony about the cost of the problem. The Supreme Court also has traditionally upheld civil rights laws under the commerce provisions of the Constitution.

“The court is influenced by whether the statute is truly necessary,” said Ohio State University law professor Deborah Merritt, who writes about the limits on federal power. “For the Violence Against Women Act, the record is very clear: Some states are doing a very good job and others are not.”

Brzonkala also has sued Virginia Tech over the way the school handled her rape charges, and yesterday’s decision sent that part of the case back to District Court. There it will await a ruling expected this year from the Supreme Court in a Georgia case on whether schools can be held liable for student-on-student harassment.