U.S. Judge James Jarvis, of the Eastern District of Tennessee, has upheld the constitutionality of the civil rights provision of the federal Violence Against Women Act. The provision makes gender-motivated crime, such as spousal abuse, a civil rights violation. Congress used its power under the interstate commerce clause to pass the legislation. After four months of hearings, Congress found in 1994 “that gender-based crimes and fear of gender-based crimes restrict movement, reduce employment opportunities, increase health expenditures, and reduce consumer expending, all of which affect interstate commerce and the national economy [and that about half of rape victims lost their jobs or were forced to quit after the crime].” Jarvis made the ruling in the case Laurel Knuckles Seaton v. Kenneth Marshall Seaton; Laurel Knuckles has sued her estranged husband for compensatory and punitive damages of $40 to $87 million. Knuckles claims that her husband repeatedly mentally and physically abused her and thus violated her civil rights.
In 1996, another U.S. District Judge found in Doe v. Doe that the provision satisfied the “rational basis” test required for Congress to pass the legislation under the interestate commerce clause. The Doe case also involved a woman whose husband allegedly repeatedly beat and threatened to kill her. In another case, Jane Doe v. Father Gerald Hatz, a third U.S. District Judge also upheld the provision’s constitutionality. That case involved a woman who alleges that a church bishop groped and kissed her when she entered church for evening service. Only Judge Jackson Kiser, chief judge for the Western District of Virginia, has ruled that the provision is not constitutional because Congress exceeded its power. The case, Brzonkala v. Virginia Tech, involves a student who accused two football players of raping her. The decision is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case challenging the provision at some point in the near future.