Court Restricts Rape Victims’ Right to Sue
A federal law that gave victims of rape and domestic violence the right to sue their attackers for violating their civil rights is unconstitutional, a U.S. appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled Friday.
The court’s 7-4 decision invalidates a key section of the Violence Against Women Act, a congressional response to domestic violence that includes funding for battered women’s programs and interstate enforcement of protective orders.
The ruling means that in states under the court’s jurisdiction--Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas--victims of rape and domestic violence will be able to sue their attackers only under state tort laws, which may have lower damage caps, shorter statutes of limitations and bar some claims against spouses.
Legal analysts said the case will probably reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could become a vehicle for putting more limits on Congress’ ability to pass legislation in areas where states also have authority.
Women’s groups sharply criticized Friday’s decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of former Virginia Tech student Christy Brzonkala, who had filed a federal lawsuit against two football players she says raped her.
“This law is really important to women who are trying to seek redress for their harms,” said Laura Goldscheid, senior staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped push Brzonkala’s suit. “There’s a lot of bias in state courts. . . . The federal judiciary is where we look for protection of our civil rights.”
The court found that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to legislate in this area because the problem is not related to interstate commerce and does not involve state or local government violations of civil rights.
“Such a statute, we are constrained to conclude, simply cannot be reconciled with the principles of limited federal government upon which this nation is founded,” Judge J. Michael Luttig wrote in the 214-page opinion.
In dissent, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote: “Violence animated by gender bias . . . substantially affects the national economy and interstate commerce.” She cited expert testimony at congressional hearings that domestic violence costs $8 billion to $15 billion annually in health care, law enforcement and lost wages.
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