Court limits Congress' power

Step backward: Rape decision undermines basis for federal action on economy and civil rights.

May 22, 2000

WHEN THE U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 last Monday, it did more than strike a devastating blow to the thousands of women who seek to recover damages in federal court from men who raped and abused them.

Just as important, the high court struck a blow to the constitutional framework that for more than 50 years has provided a secure foundation for the federal government's power to regulate the economy and combat discrimination .

The court's chief reason for the ruling was that it could find no "rational basis" for Congress to believe violence against women bears a "substantial relationship" to interstate commerce -- and therefore Congress had no authority to address it.

This holding was ominously reminiscent of the court's discredited 1930s rulings that nullified elements of the New Deal. After those decisions prompted a near-disastrous conflict with President Franklin Roosevelt, the court switched course in 1937 and essentially let Congress define the scope of its regulatory power.

In 1995, however, the Supreme Court cracked the lid on Pandora's box when it struck down a federal law regulating the sale of firearms near schools.

Last week's ruling establishes that the 1995 decision was not an isolated one, but a new initiative on the part of the court's conservative majority to limit Congress' powers.

Indeed the latest decision goes much further because the court baldly (some would say arrogantly) substituted its judgment about what affects national commerce for the one Congress had explicitly put on the public record.

As Justice David Souter said in his vigorous dissent last Monday, "Today's decision can only be seen as a step toward recapturing the prior mistakes."

How many missteps the court will take depends depend greatly on who gets to appoint its next generation of justices. But the hostility of some of the court's conservatives to federal regulatory power and civil rights law is not reassuring.

The Constitution's framers established a regime that wisely limits Congress to certain delegated powers. But if the court insists on an unduly narrow reading of those powers, it deprives elected officials of the capacity to govern effectively and undermines representative democracy.

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