Supreme Court Rules on VAWA

In our April/May 2000 issue, Ms. profiled Christy Brzonkala, the woman behind the Supreme Court case that tested the civil rights provision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA allows victims of gender-based violence to sue their attackers in federal court; Brzonkala brought her case against two university football players who allegedly raped her in her college dorm. We reported that the justices would decide by June. And indeed, on May 15, 2000, the vote came with five justices voting to strike down the civil rights remedy and four offering dissenting opinions.

In our original article, we interviewed six feminist legal scholars. All supported the civil rights remedy but none predicted that the Supremes would rule in favor of Brzonkala. Sadly, they were right. Ms. asked Martha Davis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (NLDEF), where we go from here.

“The concern is that the decision is so sweeping in scope that it will chill Congress from addressing in a serious way violence against women and other civil rights violations,” said Davis. “The majority is trying to move the country to an early nineteenth-century concept of rights, when women were written out of the Constitution. The majority wholly failed to recognize that we were talking about discrimination—women being prevented from full participation in the economy. It ignored the views of the states and the homework Congress had done.”

Davis said that VAWA—which provides funding for hotlines and other services for victims of gender-based violence—is up for reauthorization and is more important than ever, now that the civil rights remedy is not available. Said Davis: “Our focus is on making sure the issue remains a national priority, despite the Court action. It’s going to be tough for advocates to get Congress to take action if the Supreme Court is going to act as a superlegislature.”

For her part, Brzonkala told Ms., “I was happy for myself that this was finally over, but sad for every other rape victim who has to go through what I went through. In the court’s decision I read that only 4 out of every 100 men who commit rape are charged, and the average sentence is 11 months in prison. I just wish the federal government could step in. Otherwise, the epidemic of rape will grow and continue to go unpunished.”

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