United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598; 120 S. Ct. 1740; 146 L. Ed. 2d 658 (2000)

United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598; 120 S. Ct. 1740; 146 L. Ed. 2d 658 (2000)

Facts—Christy Brzonkala, a student enrolled at Virginia Tech, brought suit against two male students for rape under a provision of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, after the college provided ineffective redress. The U.S. District Court dismissed the complaint, deciding Congress had inadequate power to enact the law. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals first reversed the District Court, then held an en banc hearing and affirmed the decision.

Question—Does the commerce clause in Article I, Section 8 or Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment provide Congress with powers to provide civil remedies in cases involving violence against women?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (5–4). Congressional legislation needs to be based on one or more enumerated powers. In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that congressional powers to regulate interstate and foreign commerce needed to be tied to the channels or instrumentalities of commerce or should have a “substantial relation” to such commerce. Such ties were lacking in this case. Laws dealing with gender-motivated acts of violence are not directed toward economic activity. Unlike Lopez, in this case Congress attempted to document economic impact, but such a decision “is ultimately a judicial rather than a legislative question, and can be settled finally only by this Court.” If Congress were allowed to regulate such violence on the basis that it affected commerce, there is little that Congress could not regulate. Such regulation would obliterate the distinction “between what is truly national and what is truly local,” and would interfere with state police powers over the subject. As  to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, The Civil Rights Cases (1883) and other precedents establish that this amendment was designed to remedy state, rather than private, action. “If the allegations here are true, no civilized system of justice could fail to provide her [Brzonkala] a remedy for the conduct of re spondent Morrison. But under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States.”

J. Thomas’s concurring opinion expressed continuing opposition to the Court’s use of the “substantial effects” test in matters involving commerce, believing that this standard gave Congress excessive power.

J. Souter’s dissent argued that aggregate acts of violence against women had a substantial effect on commerce that sanctioned congressional power in this case, and he cited congressional findings to that effect. He regarded congressional powers over commerce, combined with its powers under the necessary and proper clause, to be plenary and believed the Court was unwisely returning to earlier overly formalistic tests for ascertaining when congressional exercises of power were warranted.

J. Breyer’s dissent pointed to the difficulty of drawing lines between economic and noneconomic activity and to the aggregated effect of diverse activities. He would apply minimal judicial review to cases where Congress asserted ties to commerce.

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