Washington. -- The junior senator from Delaware had a question. Would the nominee support his Violence Against Women Act of 1993?
Sen. Joe Biden was questioning Janet Reno at her confirmation hearing in March. He got the answer he wanted. The new attorney general assured him she would warmly support enactment of a bill that Mr. Biden has been pushing for the past three years.
This is good news for Joe Biden and good news for the women of America. I am not at all sure it is good news for American jurisprudence. Before the bill is rushed to passage, the Senate will want to think long and hard about the added burden the measure would place upon federal courts that are overburdened already.
Senators will find it politically difficult to criticize the Biden bill. The senator has singled out an especially ugly area of crime in America -- the violent crime committed against women because they are women. He is absolutely right to be concerned.
Mr. Biden is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last October his staff gathered data on crimes against women. The figures were appalling and the stories were heartbreaking. Roughly 21,000 domestic crimes against women are reported to police every week -- more than a million assaults, murders and rapes a year.
The staff report summarized 200 crimes chosen at random from the police reports. In Colorado, a 35-year-old woman is choked by her husband of one year; she flees to another state. In Texas, a 9-year-old girl reports that she has been raped by her father. In Idaho, a woman is raped by her boss after an office party. In Maryland, a 28-year-old woman is raped by a co-worker helping her move furniture.
These are among the reported crimes. Police estimate that for every sexual or physical assault that is reported, three go unreported. Fear of an assailant often is accompanied by fear of the system. Women know what it is to be raped twice -- literally by a criminal who attacks, figuratively by lawmen who disbelieve. "She consented," cries a defense lawyer. "She asked for it," says an indifferent cop.
Senator Biden's bill won a unanimous vote in his committee in the 102nd Congress. It will get another unanimous vote this spring. Backed by Attorney General Reno and approved by the president, the bill should have easy sailing.
Somewhat oversimplified, the bill is one more grant bill. It would grant funds to states and localities for better lighting on dangerous streets, for education and research, for improved security on college campuses. In rape trials, evidence of the woman's past sexual behavior would be inadmissible. There is much more.
Because I dearly love a young woman who was raped four years ago this spring, and because I know at first hand what hell she has endured, I whole-heartedly support what Senator Biden is trying to do. But I cannot support his bill.
"All persons within the United States," his bill asserts, "shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender." That civil right would be secured by permitting the raped or battered woman to sue her assailant in federal court for "compensatory and punitive damages and such other relief as a court may deem appropriate."
The effect of Sec. 301(c) would be to saddle federal courts with an immense new field of jurisdiction. Moreover, the benefits to plaintiffs would be largely illusory. How is one to wring compensatory and punitive damages out of the brute who commits rape?
More troublesome, this part of the bill rests upon a flimsy foundation of constitutional justification. "Gender-motivated violence," says the bill, "has a substantial effect on interstate commerce" by "diminishing productivity" and "deterring potential victims from traveling interstate." That is constitutional hokum, and Senator Biden surely knows it. The provision is of a piece with crime bills that would make every crime committed with a firearm a federal crime, because firearms move in interstate commerce. Drug-related crimes already are federal offenses for this reason.
I submit that the great bulk of violent crime, including violent crime against women, is local crime. If the rock of federalism is not to be crumbled by such erosion, Congress must resist the temptation to make every violent crime a federal crime. Strike the civil-rights section, Joe, and pass the rest.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.