The Supreme Court Monday threw out a law that let rape victims sue their attackers in federal court, saying Congress wrongly trampled on an area of state authority.
The 5-4 ruling in a Virginia case invalidated a key provision of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and followed the court's recent trend of expanding states' rights at the expense of the federal government.
The justices said that Congress, in enacting the provision, overstepped its authority to regulate interstate commerce and enforce the Constitution's equal-protection guarantee.
"Petitioner Brzonkala's complaint alleges that she was the victim of a brutal assault," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court. "If the allegations here are true, no civilized system of justice could fail to provide her a remedy ... But under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States."
"This is a major step backward for the civil rights of women.," attorney Gloria Allred, president of the Women's Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund told CBSNews.Com. "This case is extremely significant because it struck down the Violence Against Women Act. It's important because in some states, rape victims feel that they do not have adequate legal remedies under state laws. And that is why a federal law is necessary."
The justices rejected arguments by Brzonkala's lawyer and the Clinton administration that the law was needed because states are not doing enough to protect rape victims, and because gender-based violence restricts women's choices in jobs and travel.
That argument "would allow Congress to regulate any crime as long as the nationwide, aggregateimpact of that crime has substantial effects on employment, production, transit or consumption," Rehnquist said. "Indeed, if Congress may regulate gender-motivated violence, it would be able to regulate murder or any other type of violence..."
The chief justice's opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting were Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Writing for the four, Souter cited "the mountain of data assembled by Congress, here showing the effects of violence against women on interstate commerce....Violence against women may be found to affect interstate commerce and to affect it substantially."
Monday's ruling affirmed a federal appeals court that threw out Brzonkala's lawsuit against student athletes Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. The appeals court said such lawsuits come under the authority of the states, not the federal government.
"This case, once again reminds us that civil rights for women hangs by a slim, one-vote thread on the United States Supreme Court" said Allred. "This vote is a result of Reagan and Bush appointees to that court, and it is a very sad day for rape survivors everywhere."
The case is a follow up to the Supreme Court's 1995 ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which made it a federal crime to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of a school.
The justices ruled then that gun possession was insufficiently linked to interstate commerce and that the gun possession law usurped states' authority over such crimes.
Since then, the court has issued a number of rulings that tipped the balance of power toward the states, including one in January that shielded state governments against federal age-bias claims by their employees.
Justice Department lawyers told the Supreme Court that in deciding to let rape victims sue their attackers in federal court, Congress found that "archaic prejudices and improper stereotypes" about women were affecting the outcomes of cases in state courts. Violent crime against women costs the nation at least $3 billion a year, government lawyers told the court.
But the lawyer for the two athletes said that allowing Congress to enact such laws would relegate states to a trivial role in such matters.
Rehnquist wrote, "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 Constitution requires a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local."
Brzonkala, who did not return to Virginia Tech after her freshman year, has spoken publicly about the case only rarely.
At a news conference in January before the justices heard arguments, she said, "Rape is like having yousoul torn out. This violence happens to too many women, and we need laws on the books to fight it."
Thirty-six states supported Brzonkala and asked the court to uphold the provision. In February, Virginia Tech said it agreed to pay $75,000 to Brzonkala to settle a separate lawsuit she filed against the university, which she said protected the two men because they were athletes.
The cases are U.S. vs. Morrison, 99-5, and Brzonkala vs. Morrison, 99-29.
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