United States v. Morrison

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November 1999
  • Fairness in the Courts
  • Violence Against Women and Girls
  • Litigation Case Document
Legal Momentum appeared as amicus in the district court in 1996. After the federal district courT ruled the civil rights remedy unconstitutional, we became co-counsel on appeal in collaboration with the law firm Sidley & Austin.

Summary of the Case

Christy Brzonkala, a woman who alleged she was raped on campus by two football players, brought the first claim in the country under the civil rights remedy of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). That new civil rights law allowed victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in federal or state court, and was enacted by a bipartisan Congress after four years of legislative deliberation. Defendants challenged Brzonkala’s civil rights remedy claim by asserting that the civil rights remedy was unconstitutional.  

Our Role in the Case

Legal Momentum became involved in the case in 1996, appearing as amicus in the district court to defend the law’s constitutionality.  After the federal district court for the Western District of Virginia ruled that the civil rights remedy was unconstitutional, we became co-counsel, representing Brzonkala on appeal. We prevailed before a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but lost before the full en banc court.

We petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, in collaboration with the law firm Sidley & Austin, and in October of 1999 the Court granted the petition. In January 2000, then-senior staff attorney Julie Goldscheid argued the case on behalf of Christy Brzonkala, along with then-Solicitor General Seth Waxman.  

Decision

On May 15, 2000, in a 5-4 decision consistent with other recent rulings, the Court struck down the remedy as beyond Congress’ authority to legislate under either the Commerce Clause or Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. While acknowledging Congress’ findings that gender-motivated violence impacts the economy, the Court determined that the law was beyond Congress’ Commerce Clause power because it didn’t regulate economic activity.

The Court also rejected Section 5 as a valid basis for Congress to enact the Remedy. That provision allows Congress to enact laws that enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections including the equal protection clause. Although the Court recognized that state officials still discriminate in their treatment of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, it struck down the civil rights remedy because it only regulated the actions of private individuals, not state officials.