Supreme Court strikes down Violence Against Women Act

Court says Congress exceeded its constitutional authority

Washington, D.C. – A key provision of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was struck down today as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which represents one of the defendants, contended that VAWA’s enactment exceeded Congress’s constitutional authority, and the Supreme Court agreed. The decision in U.S. v. Morrison (also known as Brzonkala) has profound implications because of the limits it places on federal power.

It also marks one of the few instances in modern times in which the Court has found that Congress exceeded its constitutionally enumerated powers.

The case involved the alleged rape of Christy Brzonkala, a white athlete at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, by James Crawford and Tony Morrison, both black athletes at the university. Both students were cleared by a criminal grand jury and a university judicial committee. However, Brzonkala sued both men under VAWA’s Subtitle C, the provision struck down today. The provision creates a federal civil remedy, on top of existing state remedies, for violence motivated by gender-based animus. Tony Morrison is represented by both CIR and W. David Paxton of Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore in Roanoke.

Brzonkala, along with the Clinton Administration and various feminist groups, argued that Subtitle C was authorized under both Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. The court rejected both of those arguments today, affirming a 1999 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

CIR’s General Counsel Michael Rosman, who argued the case before the Supreme Court pronounced today to be “a very good day for the Constitution and the rule of law.” He added that “our deep satisfaction over the result in this case is tempered only by the toll that these destructive charges of sexual assault have had on Tony Morrison and his parents.” Curt Levey, CIR’s Director of Legal & Public Affairs, emphasized that “although today’s decision will be viewed as a historic setback for feminist advocacy groups, it is a victory for American women, whose safety is best preserved by strengthening local law enforcement, rather than by relying on federal bureaucrats.”

Photo: “Statue Authority of Law, which sits on the south side of the entrance stairs” by Matt H. Wade licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.