Case Status: Victory. Morrison is one of the defining Commerce Clause precedents of the decade.

U.S. v. Morrison

  • U.S. Supreme Court

CIR Wins Historic Commerce Clause Case United States v. Morrison

On May 15, 2000, the Supreme Court decided one of the defining Commerce Clause cases of the last twenty years. In cooperation with attorney David Paxton of the Roanoke, VA law firm of Gentry Locke, the Center for Individual Rights represented Antonio Morrison in his challenge to a provision of the Violence Against Women Act, which created a federal tort remedy for victims of gender motivated violence. In United States v. Morrison, CIR argued that the tort remedy went beyond Congress’s enumerated powers, specifically, the power to regulate interstate commerce. The Supreme Court agreed with CIR, and to date U.S. v. Morrison remains a landmark of Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

The case began when Morrison, a student and football player at Virginia Tech, was accused of assaulting and raping fellow student Christy Brzonkala. Morrison denied the charges but was brought before a school discipline committee and suspended for two semesters. However, during a second hearing, the school determined there was only enough evidence to charge Morrison with use of “Abusive Language.” The school dropped Morrison’s suspension, and he was able to return to school immediately.

Brzonkala never filed criminal charges because she claimed she had no physical evidence. Because of this lack of evidence, Brzonkala did not press charges in the state criminal law court. However, aided by Legal Momentum, a national feminist advocacy organization, Brzonkala filed suit in federal district court under a provision of the recently passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Congressional Overreach Into State Tort Law

Congress enacted VAWA in 1994, making it a federal tort to commit any act of violence motivated by gender-based animus. Relying on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Congress created a federal “right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender.” The act allowed any victim of a crime motivated by gender to bring a civil action in federal court, even if the alleged perpetrator had never been convicted of a crime in a state criminal law court.

The District Court immediately dismissed the claims against Morrison and declared VAWA an unconstitutional overreach of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. The Founders believed that confining Congress to explicit enumerated powers — that is, a limited government — best protected individual liberty. The Constitution granted Congress the authority to regulate the flow of goods between the different states. However, Congress has repeatedly attempted to use the Commerce Clause to regulate wholly intrastate activities that may have a minor effect on interstate commerce.

CIR agreed to assist in representing Morrison. Though Congress enacted VAWA on the basis of its authority under the Commerce Clause, VAWA regulated violent crime, not commerce. As Federal District Court Judge Jackson Kiser explained in U.S. v. Morrison, if congress can regulate violent crime because it affects interstate commerce, it can also regulate insomnia, which has a far greater effect on commerce than crimes motivated by gender. 

In essence, if VAWA is a permissible use of the commerce power because of the
regulated activity’s effect on the national economy, which in turn affects interstate commerce, then it would be inconsistent
to deny the commerce power’s extension into family law, most criminal laws, and even insomnia.

Brzonkala v. Virginia Polytechnic Univ., 1996 WL 431097 (W.D.Va.) at 14.

CIR also argued that Congress breached the principles of federalism by usurping the power of the states to administer criminal and civil tort law. There are many good reasons why states are traditionally responsible for these laws. The Founding Fathers never envisioned a federal government with the power to regulate local conduct. A federal government that is free to punish infractions of local laws on a national scale threatens the liberty of individuals, who are simply overpowered by national interests that are indifferent to individual guilt or innocence. After separate and thorough investigations, both the university and a local grand jury declined to take further action against Morrison. Though Morrison was cleared, he was forced to defend himself all over again against a federal lawsuit on the basis of allegations deemed too flimsy to support a case.

Lastly, CIR argued that Congress lacked the authority to enact VAWA under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants Congress the power to “to enforce, by appropriate legislation” protection against state actions that “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Brzonkala argued that Section 5 authorized Congress to enact VAWA where state courts failed to adequately prosecute crimes motivated by gender-based animus. But the plain meaning of the text, as interpreted by over a century of precedent, is that Congress has the power to protect people from state actions that violate individual rights. It does not give Congress the power to step in and replace state governments in their role as administers of criminal and civil tort laws.

A New Direction for the Commerce Clause

CIR’s effort to restore traditional notions of limited government based on a federalist system faced fifty years of entrenched precedent that favored expansive Congressional authority. When Brzonkala appealed her claim to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a three judge panel overturned our victory at the district court and upheld the seemingly settled view that the Commerce Clause offered Congress a blank check of regulatory power going back to the the era of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s court packing scheme, when the Supreme Court drastically expanded the definition of “commerce” and allowed Congress to regulate nearly anything they claimed affected interstate commerce. This orthodoxy held sway for over half a century. However, things began to change under the Rehnquist Court in the late 1990s.

Around the time Morrison was first sued in Federal District Court, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of U.S. v. Lopez. At issue in Lopez was a law in which Congress made it illegal to carry a firearm within a certain radius of a school building. Congress justified this law under the Commerce Clause. The Rehnquist Court, however, found the law unconstitutional because the subject matter had “nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms.”

US v. Morrison: Strengthening the Commerce Clause
Antonio Morrison’s mother outside the Supreme Court

Shortly after, the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc vacated the panel decision and affirmed the District Court ruling in Morrison’s favor. Brzonkala’s attorneys appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. U.S. v. Morrison was CIR attorney Michael Rosman’s first appearance before the Supreme Court, and despite facing the well-funded feminist organizations and the Clinton Administration attorneys defending VAWA, he scored a victory that vindicated Morrison’s individual rights and protected the classical principles of federalism.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court agreed with CIR and struck down the civil remedies provision of VAWA. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, observed the importance of the case by noting, “the concern… that Congress might use the Commerce Clause to completely obliterate the Constitution’s distinction between national and local authority seems well founded.”

The Legacy of United States v. Morrison

Together with U.S. v. Lopez, U.S. v. Morrison stands as one of the turning points in Commerce Clause jurisprudence. After the excesses of the New Deal, the principles of the Constitution were called upon to place real limits on Congressional power. As CIR’s Michael Rosman explained in wake of the victory, “the court is now requiring congress to toe the constitutional line.”

The effect of these changes in Commerce Clause jurisprudence can be seen in the recent case of NFIB v. Sebelius. In that case, the Court considered the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance. Five of the justices, citing to U.S. v. Morrison eight times, agreed that such expansive power could not be justified under the Commerce Clause. Because the Commerce Clause no longer gave Congress carte blanche to regulate as it pleased, a coalition of justices had to resort to an act of legal juggling to preserve the law under Congress’ taxing power.

Over twenty years later, U.S. v. Morrison is required reading in many Constitutional Law classes and is universally recognized as one of the landmark Commerce Clause cases and a victory for individual rights.

Cooperating Counsel

  • David Paxton, Gentry Locke (Roanoke, VA)

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