Court to rule on Congress' power over the states

Woman asks justices to let her sue two men she accused of rape

January 08, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Christy Brzonkala is nervous and seems a bit disoriented by her new -- and obviously unwanted -- role as a public champion of women's rights.

After months of trying to avoid personal publicity about her case, to be heard next week in the Supreme Court, Brzonkala uncomfortably met a roomful of cameras and reporters yesterday.

The encounter started early, her media adviser said, so she did not have to sit and wait at a head table, and be stared at and noisily filmed.

Brzonkala, of Fairfax, Va., was 18 when she enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University five years ago. Weeks after the start of her freshman year, she told university officials she had been raped by two football players in a dormitory. It's alleged that one bragged about it in a cafeteria. Depressed, she left the university and has not returned.

The two players were investigated by criminal prosecutors but were not charged.

"Rape," she said yesterday, reading rapidly from a sheet of paper, "is like having your soul torn out."

Standing beside her was Kathryn J. Rodgers, executive director of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy group handling Brzonkala's lawsuit. Rodgers praised her as "a champion for all women. And she has been joined in her fight by women's groups across the country."

Brzonkala is asking the Supreme Court to allow her to sue the two former football players for damages.

What she wants, she said yesterday, are "more laws" to protect women from being assaulted because they are women. "We have laws now, but they don't work. It's just that simple."

She added, "Rape is a brutal form of discrimination -- women are raped because they are women."

Her case carries enormous potential to affect civil rights issues and has become a major test of Congress' power to pass laws that add rights, especially in areas that are traditionally supposed to be left to the states.

Violence based on the victim's sex is usually something state and local police handle, but women's rights groups persuaded Congress in 1994, a year before Brzonkala's ordeal, that states and cities were doing too little. The result: the Violence Against Women Act.

In March, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., struck down the part of the act that allows victims of sex-based violence to sue their attackers. In a sweeping ruling, the appeals court said Congress had no power under the anti-discrimination 14th Amendment to regulate what one private individual does to another.

With the Justice Department's strong support, Brzonkala is attempting to get the court to revive the private lawsuit option.

"It's been tough," going through the years of legal combat, she told reporters. But, "I felt I should go as far as I can go so I don't look 10 years down the line and say, `I should have done something else.' " She gets that chance Tuesday, when her lawyer, Julie Goldscheid, takes the lectern in front of the justices.

Now 23, living in Washington and working as a waitress, Brzonkala said she still hopes someday to go to college. Asked when, she said, "I have no idea; I don't try to plan anymore."

Pressed to say what is at stake, she said, if she wins, "it will eliminate some of the discrimination that goes on in the court system in dealing with women's issues that come up."

Lined up on her side, with women's rights and civil rights groups, is Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., a Democrat, who was the author of the Violence Against Women's Act.

On the other side are a variety of conservative and states' rights advocacy groups, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the state of Alabama. They have told the court that the case is not a test of women's need for new forms of federal protection but a test of Congress' powers to reach out and take over areas that the Constitution preserves for the states.

For example, the conservative Institute for Justice told the court that, if the 1994 law is upheld, Congress "in a twinkling could federalize the entire criminal law" and all other laws protecting one individual from harms by another.

Its brief adds: "If that happens, then the doctrine of enumerated federal powers, and the division of powers between the federal and state governments, becomes a distant memory. That tragic result would mean the end of federalism."

The court's hearing will be followed by months of discussions by the justices, with a final ruling expected by summer.

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