On this day in 2000, United States v. Morrison was argued in front of the Supreme Court. Morrison was a constitutional challenge to a section of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) that provided a civil remedy for victims of gender-motivated violence by allowing them to sue for damages in federal court. The question for the Court was whether Congress had the authority to enact this provision under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1994, Christy Brzonkala, a Virginia Tech student, became the first person to file a Federal lawsuit under VAWA. Brzonkala initially filed a university complaint against two fellow Virginia Tech students, football players Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, alleging that they sexually assaulted her. After a school hearing, the complaint against Crawford was dropped, while Morrison received a one-year suspension, which was withdrawn shortly before the start of the upcoming football season because school officials found the punishment “unduly harsh.” Brzonkala turned to the courts. After a Virginia grand jury failed to return criminal charges for either Morrison or Crawford in 1996, she filed a federal lawsuit against Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech under the newly enacted VAWA.
Morrison’s lawyers argued that the provision allowing Brzonkala to pursue this federal lawsuit was unconstitutional because Congress lacked the authority to enact such a provision under either the Commerce Clause or the 14th Amendment. The district court agreed and dismissed the suit. Brzonkala appealed, but the Fourth Circuit affirmed, explaining, “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.”
At oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, the conservative justices pressed Brzonkala’s lawyer, Julie Goldscheid, about the limits of her reading of of the commerce power. “The justification for the statute that you’re now giving us,” Justice Scalia argued, “is a justification that would allow general Federal criminal laws on all subjects because all crime affects interstate commerce.” Morrison’s lawyer, Michael E. Rosman, faced similar slippery slope concerns from the other direction. Justice Breyer wondered whether the more limited view of the commerce power he advocated meant that if “people are in their own houses cooking up biological warfare or it turns out that in their own fireplaces, they pollute the air in a way that will, through global warming, swamp the east coast” then “Congress is powerless to act?”
The Supreme Court issued its decision in Morrison on May 11, 2000. With a 5-4 vote, the justices affirmed the decision and reasoning of the Fourth Circuit, holding the civil remedy unconstitutional under both the Commerce Clause and the 14th Amendment rationales. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, in which he rejected the idea that “Congress may regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on that conduct’s aggregate effect on interstate commerce.” The commerce power, he explained, “requires a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local. He also held that the enforcement clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress the power to enact the civil remedy provision, since the Fourteenth Amendment regulated constitutional violations by government actors. Morrison was a private citizen, and Justice Rehnquist concluded that there was insufficient evidence that state governments were unconstitutionally discriminating in their enforcement of protection against gender-motivated violence.
Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, wrote the dissent, arguing that Congress had authority under the Commerce Clause to pass the civil remedy provision. He cited congressional findings that “crimes of violence motivated by gender have a substantial adverse effect on interstate commerce, by deterring potential victims from traveling interstate, from engaging in employment in interstate business, and from transacting with business, and in places involved, in interstate commerce.”
While Morrison struck down the civil remedy provision, the body of VAWA remained intact. It provided federal funding for the prosecution of gender-motivated violent crimes, established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice, and provided resources for victims of gender-motivated violence, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline. President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 on March 7, 2013, which reaffirmed VAWA and also expanded federal protections and resources apply to LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants.