Court Cases;

OLR Research Report

July 27, 2000




By: Susan Price-Livingston, Research Analyst

You asked for a summary of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking a portion of the Violence Against Women Act and about other recent decisions applying the same reasoning.


In United States v. Morrison, the Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the federal Violence Against Women Act that created a federal civil rights remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence. The majority held that neither the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause nor the 14th Amendment gives Congress the power to act in this area. Four justices dissented.

Morrison is the first Commerce Clause challenge the Supreme Court has taken up since its 1995 decision in U.S. v. Lopez. That case announced what commentators have seen as a significant departure from more than 50 years of constitutional jurisprudence, upholding federal regulation of activities that, when aggregated, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Lopez required a more stringent test when the regulated activity (in that case, possession of a gun in a school zone) was intrastate and noneconomic in nature.


The challenged provision of the Violence Against Women Act (42 USC 13981) created a federal civil rights remedy for victims of violent crimes committed by a person motivated, at least in part, by hostility based on the victim's gender. It authorized victims to file suit in state or federal court for compensatory and punitive (money) damages, injunctions, and declaratory relief. Defendants could be sued regardless of whether they had been arrested, prosecuted, or convicted as a result of their actions.


The plaintiff, Christy Brzonkala, alleged that while a freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, she was assaulted and repeatedly raped by two members of the school's football team. She sued her assailants under Section 13981, and the institute and several school officials under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (The Supreme Court's decision did not address the validity of her Title IX claims.)

The district court dismissed the Section 13981 counts from her complaint, holding that Congress lacked the authority to enact that provision under either the Commerce Clause or Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. A divided 4th Circuit panel reversed, but the entire circuit reheard the case en banc and affirmed the district court's conclusion that Section 13981 was unconstitutional. By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court affirmed (U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. ___ (2000)).


Justice Rehnquist, joined by justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas ruled that the Commerce Clause does not grant Congress the authority to regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on that conduct's aggregate effect on interstate commerce. He rejected the validity of congressional findings that gender-motivated violence substantially affects interstate commerce, and concluded that it is the province of the states, not the federal government, to regulate intrastate violence that is not directed at the instrumentalities, channels, or goods involved in interstate commerce.

The Violence Against Women Act contains a number of congressional findings, including that gender-motivated violence affects interstate commerce “by deterring potential victims from traveling interstate, from engaging in employment in interstate business, and from transacting with business, and places involved in interstate commerce by diminishing national productivity, increasing medical and other costs, and decreasing the supply of and the demand for interstate products.” The Court, citing its earlier decision in U.S. v. Lopez (514 U.S. 549 (1995)) ruled that the but-for causal chain from the occurrence of the crime to every attenuated effect upon interstate commerce was unjustified. It found such reasoning unworkable in light of the constitutionally mandated balance of power between the states and federal government.

The majority also rejected the argument that the law was within Congress's authority to enforce the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. It ruled that while that clause permits Congress to place limitations on state actions to prevent gender-based discrimination, it does not reach purely private conduct of the sort that Section 13981 sought to remedy.