Saturday March 6 02:24EST

Law Benefiting Rape Victims Nixed

Associated Press Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An appeals court struck down a federal law allowing rape victims to sue their attackers for civil rights violations, ruling the law was a ``sweeping intrusion'' into matters traditionally handled by states.

Women's groups hoped Friday's decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would be reviewed and overturned by the Supreme Court.

``It would be a tragedy if this became the law of the land,'' said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Smeal called the 1994 Violence Against Women Act the first major advance for women since Congress banned sex discrimination in federally funded schools in 1975.

The 4th Circuit held that Congress stretched too far its interpretation of its right to regulate interstate commerce when it passed the law.

``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.

The ruling is binding in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Eileen Wagner, lawyer for plaintiff Christy Brzonkala, said she expected the case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

``They can either give it a thumbs-up — in which case people will use this law, which they are reluctant to do now — or a thumbs-down, which would encourage Congress to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the thing,'' she said.

In her suit, Ms. Brzonkala, a Virginia Tech student who has allowed her name to be disclosed, sought unspecified damages against two football players whom she said had raped her in dormitory.

She did not report the alleged incident for several months and no charges were filed against the players. Their lawyers did not return calls for comment.

Ms. Brzonkala's lawyers defended the Violence Against Women Act by arguing that gender-motivated violence affects commerce by imposing medical and legal costs on victims, inhibiting travel by those who fear violence and lessening productivity.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.