Boston Herald

Appeals court rules Violence Against Women Act unconstitutional

Associated Press
Friday, March 5, 1999
The Boston Herald

RICHMOND, Va. - A federal law that gives civil rights protections to victims of gender-motivated violence is unconstitutional, a divided federal appeals court ruled today.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 7-4 to uphold a lower court's ruling against the Violence Against Women Act, which allows women to sue their sex attackers for damages in federal court for violating their civil rights. It has been the target of several legal challenges since it became law in 1994.

``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,'' said the ruling written by Judge J. Michael Luttig.

The act also included federal funding to help states curtail violence against women.

The full court overruled its own three-judge panel that in 1997 had voted 2-1 to throw out the lower court's ruling in the case of a college student who claimed her civil rights were violated by her school and two football players accused of raping her.

Christy Brzonkala, a student at Virginia Tech, said the attack occurred in a dormitory a few months after the federal law took effect.

She did not report the incident for several months and no criminal charges were ever filed against the two players, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. She contends in her lawsuit that their acts violated her civil right to be free from gender-motivated crimes of violence.

She contended that Virginia Tech mishandled the campus judicial proceedings against the players and protected them because they were athletes. Her case never got to trial.

The appeals court ruled that Congress overstepped its bounds when it relied on its power to regulate interstate commerce to enact the law.

Ms. Brzonkala, who has allowed her name to be made public, argued that gender-motivated violence affects commerce by imposing medical and legal costs on victims, inhibiting travel by those who fear violence and lessening productivity. She was the first to sue under the law.

But the court described the law as ``a sweeping intrusion'' into matters traditionally handled by the states.

In dissent, Judge Diana G. Motz wrote that Congress had clear authority to enact the law.

``I recognize that people of good will - including federal judges - could believe that the statute challenged here does not constitute good public policy. But judges' policy choices provide no basis for finding a statute unconstitutional,'' she wrote.

``When federal courts undertake responsibility of this kind without specific constitutional support, the threat to our system of government is grave indeed,'' she wrote for the four dissenting judges.

The ruling means the federal law is no longer in effect in the 4th U.S. Circuit, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Ms. Brzonkala's lawyer said the case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.