Women can't sue rapists, court says

Justices strike down key part of Violence Against Women Act

May 16, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Putting strict new limits on Congress' power to protect civil rights and crime victims, the Supreme Court struck down yesterday a key provision of a federal law that gave women who have been raped the right to sue their attackers.

The court ruled, by a 5-4 vote, that the 1994 law intruded too deeply into the state and local domain. "The Constitution," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, "requires a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local."

The court rejected the theory of the law's supporters that sexual violence against women costs the economy billions of dollars, making it a national issue for Congress to address. If that theory were valid, Rehnquist said, it "would allow Congress to regulate any crime."

As if to warn Congress against exceeding its powers in an effort to solve social problems, the chief justice reminded lawmakers that the court "is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution" as it governs national legislative power.

The decision came as a modern echo of the fight, more than six decades ago, over a series of Supreme Court decisions that struck down wide-ranging New Deal laws passed by Congress to deal with the Depression.

That fight led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to propose to "pack" the court with sympathetic justices. His court-packing plan died after the court switched positions and began upholding New Deal laws.

Yesterday, in nullifying a key portion of the Violence Against Women Act, the court offered two explanations.

First, it said, because sexual violence against women is a problem caused by private individuals and is ordinarily handled by state and local police, Congress may not create new federal penalties for assailants.

Second, the majority said, Congress cannot adopt remedies for such assaults on the theory that it is regulating the economic effects of sexual violence on women across the nation. Such violence, it said, is not an economic activity.

To the young woman who used the 1994 law to sue for damages in an alleged rape by two college football players, Rehnquist said: "No civilized system of justice could fail to provide her a remedy" if her charge was true.

But, Rehnquist added, "Under our federal system, that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States."

The ruling marked the third time in three years that the court has found a federal civil rights law unconstitutional. The decision was the latest in a string of 5-4 decisions that have sought to revitalize states' rights at the expense of Congress.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who was the principal author of the legislation that was struck down yesterday, said: "This is a big-deal decision; it is pretty sweeping in my view." He said the ruling embraced a view of the court's authority that "I thought we did away with in the New Deal."

Part of his concern, Biden said, is that because the ruling is based on "constitutional principle," there is no way Congress can overcome it by passing laws. "This can only be taken care of by [changing] the makeup of the court," and that makes it an issue for this year's presidential election, the senator said.

Michael E. Rosman, general counsel of the conservative Center for Individual Rights, who led the fight against allowing female victims of sex-based violence to sue in federal court, said: "This is a good day for the Constitution," showing that "even popular and well-intentioned laws" can go astray constitutionally.

Christy Brzonkala, the Fairfax, Va., woman who sought to sue under the law for the sexual assault she said occurred during her first weeks as a freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, commonly called Virginia Tech, was not available for comment on the ruling, her attorneys said. She quit the university and, now 23, is working in Washington as a waitress.

Neither of the men she accused was prosecuted in Virginia. A suspension ordered by university officials for one of them was overturned in an appeal to a more senior Virginia Tech official.

Brzonkala received $75,000 under a settlement in a separate lawsuit against Virginia Tech. She settled that case under a different federal law, which was not available for her claims against the football players.

Kathryn J. Rodgers, general counsel of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, a women's rights group that represented Brzonkala, called the ruling "a step backward for all civil rights law."

With the ruling, Rodgers added, "The court is in effect writing women out of the federal Constitution, wishing us luck and sending us to the states for justice."

A conservative advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, countered that the case "was never about women's rights. It was about whether there are limits to Congress' power under the Constitution."

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