Supreme Court agrees to hear case testing Congress' civil rights powers; Justices to decide whether anti-sexual violence law intrudes on states' rights


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court set the stage yesterday for a major ruling on Congress' power to pass new civil rights laws and, in particular, to protect women against sexual violence by allowing them to sue their attackers.

Taking on new cases for decision in the term that formally opens Monday, the court said it will rule on the constitutionality of the Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress five years ago.

A federal appeals court struck down the key part of that law in March, saying Congress had intruded on states' authority to deal with domestic violence. It also ruled that Congress could not use the theory that sexual assaults have an economic effect on women to combat such violence.

The clause nullified by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond gives victims of sex-based violence the right to seek damages in federal court from their attackers.

A key test

A student who was raped in a dormitory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University early in her freshman year sued two members of the football team who she said had assaulted her. The student, Christy Brzonkala of Fairfax, Va., dropped out of school after the incident and has not returned. Neither of the two men she accused was charged with a crime.

The Brzonkala case will be a key test for one of the court's female justices, Sandra Day O'Connor. She has been part of a five-justice majority that in recent years has voted to curb Congress' powers that intrude on states' authority. O'Connor and the others in that majority have seldom addressed a civil rights law that might deeply affect states.

The court's other female member, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by contrast, has tended to favor federal restraint on states' prerogatives. Her fellow justices respect her views on women's rights, so her influence in the case could be significant if her recovery from cancer surgery allows her to take part. The case is expected to have a hearing in January.

Ginsburg joined in the court's action yesterday agreeing to hear the dispute.

Support for law

Women's rights groups supported the bill before Congress, arguing that state and local governments were not doing enough to protect women from violence based on their sex. State governments, however, have challenged the law as an effort to nationalize a local problem.

Kathryn J. Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, a women's rights advocacy group, denounced the lower-court decision that nullified the 1994 law as "very much a determined effort to deny women equal rights."

She said it took Congress and lobbying groups four years to gather the evidence necessary to show that violence against women has a widespread effect on the nation's commerce and industry.

'Not about women's rights'

Roger Pilon, legal affairs vice president of the Cato Institute, an advocacy group favoring states' sovereignty, contended that the case "is not about women's rights; it is about whether Congress has the power, under the Constitution, to enact a statute" like this one.

It is "just one more example of congressional overreaching in the name of looking tough on crime," Pilon said. The appeals court ruled that Congress, in seeking to justify the sweeping law, showed "a profound misunderstanding" of what the Constitution allowed it to do in regulating economics, he said.

That court also relied on a pair of 1883 rulings that struck down Congress' efforts after the Civil War to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Those rulings, the appeals court indicated, show that Congress cannot regulate the conduct of private individuals -- in domestic violence incidents, for example.

Two appeals

In yesterday's Supreme Court order, the justices agreed to rule on two appeals defending the Violence Against Women Act: one by Brzonkala, the other by the Clinton administration's Justice Department.

The administration appeal argued that the appeals court decision against the law "places unwarranted limits on Congress' authority to address a national problem of the first magnitude."

Brzonkala sued two Virginia Tech students who were on the football team at the time of the assault in the fall of 1994.

She contended that, soon after meeting the two, they took turns raping her in a college dormitory room, then boasted about it later to other students. She sued the two students under the Violence Against Women Act.

She also sued Virginia Tech under another federal civil rights law. But that claim was thrown out and is not at issue in the case the Supreme Court will hear.

A ruling is expected next year.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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