The US Supreme Court is spearheading a major realignment of the power balance between the states and the federal government. And, once again, the states are winning.
At issue: what a majority on the court views as Congress's unrestrained use of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. They see federal lawmakers using it to justify a seeming unlimited range of legislative initiatives - many of which have nothing to do with the regulation of commerce.
Yesterday, the nation's highest court said, in effect, enough is enough.
By a 5-to-4 vote, the court's conservative wing overturned a key portion of a federal law that empowered victims of gender-based violence to sue their attackers in federal court for civil damages. The majority ruled that Congress overstepped its authority under the Commerce Clause when it passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
"Gender-motivated crimes of violence are not, in any sense of the phrase, economic activity," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the majority opinion.
"We accordingly reject the argument that Congress may regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on that conduct's aggregate effect on interstate commerce," the chief justice adds in an opinion joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy.
In a sharply worded dissent, Justice David Souter says Congress compiled a "mountain" of data demonstrating the effects of violence against women on interstate commerce, including reports on gender bias from task forces in 21 states. He writes that aggregate effects should trigger commerce-clause authority in Congress.
"Supply and demand for goods in interstate commerce will ... be affected by the deaths of 2,000 to 4,000 women annually at the hands of domestic abusers, and by the reduction in the workforce by the 100,000 or more rape victims who lose their jobs each year or are forced to quit," he writes. "Violence against women may be found to affect interstate commerce and affect it substantially."
The decision is drawing criticism from women's rights groups, many of whom lobbied Congress for the legislation. "We are extremely disappointed and concerned that the court's continued march toward states' rights is cutting women out of the Constitution," says Martha Davis of the National Organization of Women Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Opponents of the law welcome the court's ruling as evidence that a majority of justices are serious about efforts to rein in congressional attempts to expand federal authority into areas the Founding Fathers wished to reserve to state and local governments.
"It's a good day for the Constitution," says Michael Rosman of the Center for Individual Rights who argued the case before the Supreme Court.
The decision is significant because it is seen as an important restatement of the constitutional principle that Congress's power to legislate under the Commerce Clause is limited to areas that substantially affect interstate commerce.
The case marks an important affirmation of a 1995 landmark decision that struck down a federal law criminalizing the possession of a handgun near a school. The court ruled that guns and schools was an area of local and state criminal jurisdiction, and that the federal government had no business attempting to make such offenses federal crimes.
The decision also reaffirmed a 1996 ruling in which the high court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to interpret the scope of the Constitution. Consistent with that earlier ruling, the court struck down a portion of the Violence Against Women Act because it was aimed at regulating the private behavior of rapists and violent misogynists. The purpose of the 14th Amendment is to regulate state action rather than private, criminal action, the court ruled.
It remains unclear to what extent the loss of the Violence Against Women's Act will leave women vulnerable to acts of gender-motivated violence without recourse through the law. Critics of the law say it was passed by members of Congress who were more interested in appearing to safeguard women than in actually boosting the legal security of women. They say most states already had similar laws on the books permitting rape victims to sue their victims in state court for damages.
"What it means is that the state laws against violence against women, which are there and available, will be invoked as needed. There is no need for the federal government to be involved. It's just feel-good grandstanding," says E. Duncan-Getchell, who filed a brief on behalf of the Independent Women's Forum in Virginia.
But women's rights advocates say the law helped raise awareness among women and put potential attackers on notice that they would be held accountable for gender-based violence, even if state and local law-enforcement officials were unresponsive.
The Supreme Court decision stems from a case of alleged gang rape at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. No criminal charges were filed, and a university disciplinary board declined to take harsh action, so the woman sued for damages under the Violence Against Women Act.
A federal judge threw out the case in 1996, saying Congress had acted outside its Commerce Clause authority when passing the law. That ruling was ultimately affirmed by the appeals court.
The appeals-court decision covered 113 pages and reads in part like a manifesto demanding a return to a government of checks and balances designed by the Founding Fathers.
*Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society