529 U.S. 598 (2000), argued 11 Jan. 2000, decided 15 May 2000 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Thomas concurring, Souter and Breyer in dissent.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was the product of four years of congressional hearings that documented the prevalence of violence against women, its impact on the nation, and the states’ failure to protect women from such crimes. Citing specific evidence of a substantial effect on the nation's economy and bias in the state justice systems, Congress used its authority under the Commerce Clause and section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enact the Civil Rights Remedy of VAWA (section 3981). The Civil Rights Remedy enabled victims of gender-based violence to sue their assailants in state or federal court for compensatory or punitive damages, declaratory or injunctive relief, and attorney fees.
One of the few women to use the Civil Rights Remedy was Christy Bronzkala. After allegedly being gang raped by Antonio Morrison and James Crawford in a Virginia Polytechnic dorm room, Bronzkala filed a complaint under the school's sexual assault policy. After the school's repeated failure to provide justice or relief, Bronzkala sued her assailants in federal court.
Affirming the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled the Civil Rights Remedy of VAWA unconstitutional. Evaluating the same factors considered in United States v. Lopez (1995), the majority found violence against women to be noneconomic in nature and outside Congress’ legislative jurisdiction. Writing for the Court, Justice William H. Rehnquist emphasized that gender-based violence was a local issue and therefore inappropriate for federal legislation. Additionally, the majority explained that section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to states and therefore legislation directed at private persons was outside Congress’ section 5 enforcement power.
The dissenting justices argued that Congress had full authority under the Commerce Clause to enact the Civil Rights Remedy. Referring to the “mountain of data” collected by Congress, the Court found that Congress had sufficient support to conclude that gender-based violence affected interstate commerce. Additionally, the dissenters argued that by rejecting Congress’ findings and focusing on the noneconomic nature of the activity, the majority was ignoring prior precedent and replacing Congress’ judgment with its own. In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that a rule that requires an economic/noneconomic distinction for regulated activity is unworkable.
Morrison has played an important role in the continual battle over the balance of federal and state power. Mirroring the decision made in Lopez, Morrison marked a sharp change in the Court's interpretation of the Commerce Clause. It was the first time since the New Deal the Court rejected congressional findings that an activity affected interstate commerce. Along with limiting Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause, the decision also further restrained the use of section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment for the progression of civil rights.