United States v. Morrison

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

DOCKET NO.: 99-5
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 529 US 598 (2000)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 2000
DECIDED: May 15, 2000

Julie Goldscheid - Argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 99-29, Brzonkala v. Morrison
Michael E. Rosman - Argued the cause for the respondents
Seth P. Waxman - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States in No. 99-5

Facts of the case

In 1994, while enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), Christy Brzonkala alleged that Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, both students and varsity football players at Virginia Tech, raped her. In 1995, Brzonkala filed a complaint against Morrison and Crawford under Virginia Tech's Sexual Assault Policy. After a hearing, Morrison was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to immediate suspension for two semesters. Crawford was not punished. A second hearing again found Morrison guilty. After an appeal through the university's administrative system, Morrison's punishment was set aside, as it was found to be "excessive." Ultimately, Brzonkala dropped out of the university. Brzonkala then sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech in Federal District Court, alleging that Morrison's and Crawford's attack violated 42 USC section 13981, part of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which provides a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence. Morrison and Crawford moved to dismiss Brzonkala's suit on the ground that section 13981's civil remedy was unconstitutional. In dismissing the complaint, the District Court found that that Congress lacked authority to enact section 13981 under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment, which Congress had explicitly identified as the sources of federal authority for it. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed.


Does Congress have the authority to enact the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 under either the Commerce Clause or Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for United States v. Morrison

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 2000 in United States v. Morrison

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 15, 2000 in United States v. Morrison

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in two consolidated cases 99-5 and 99-29, United States against Morrison and Brzonkala v. Morrison.

The Petitioner Christy Brzonkala accused the respondents Antonio Morrison and James Crawford of brutally assaulting and raping her while the three were students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Following the attack, Morrison made vulgar remarks to Brzonkala into the patrons of the dormitory dining hall indicating that his attack on her was motivated by gender based animus toward women.

She filed a complaint against respondents under Virginia Tech's judicial system but the University ultimately decided not to punish Morrison.

Brzonkala then sued Morrison and Crawford in Virginia Tech and Federal Court.

Arguing among other things that Morrison and Crawford's attack violated Title 42 U.S.C. Section 13981.

That was enacted as part of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and it provides a Federal Civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence.

The District Court dismissed Brzonkala's complaint because it concluded that Congress lacked constitutional authority to enact Section 13981.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc agreed with that conclusion.

We granted certiorari and we now affirm.

Every law enacted by Congress must be based on one or more of its powers enumerated under the Constitution.

In this case, Congress relied on two such bases: the Commerce Clause and Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

However, we conclude that neither provision is sufficient to sustain Section 13981's federal civil remedy.

We most recently canvassed and clarified our case law governing Commerce Clause regulation in Lopez against the United States several years ago.

In Lopez, we held that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause.

Several significant considerations contributed to this decision.

First, the act was a criminal statute that had nothing to do with commerce or any sort of economic enterprise; second, the act contained no express jurisdictional element, which might have limited its reach to a discrete set of firearm possessions that have an explicit connection with or effect on interstate commerce; third, we noted that the act was not supported by express Congressional findings regarding the effects upon interstate commerce; finally, our decision in Lopez rested on the fact that the causal link between gun possession in school zone and interstate commerce was extraordinarily attenuated.

The government argued that gun possession may ultimately affect interstate commerce because violence influences travel and insurance and because any determent education may ultimately affect national productivity.

We rejected this sort of house-that-jack-built reasoning, because it would obliterate the Constitution's distinction between national and local power.

With these principles as reference points, the proper resolution of the present case is clear.

Gender motivated crimes of violence are not in any sense of the phrase economic activity.

Like the Gun-Free School Zones Act's Section 13981 contains no jurisdictional element establishing that the federal cause of action is in pursuance if Congress' powered regulate interstate commerce.

And while Section 13981 is supported by voluminous Congressional findings unlike the Lopez case, regarding the impact that gender motivated violence has on victims in their families.

These findings are substantially weakened by the fact that they rely on the very method of reasoning that we rejected in Lopez.

This reasoning seeks to follow the but-for causal chain from the initial occurrence of violent crime, the suppression of which has always been the prime object of the State's police power to every attenuated effect upon interstate commerce.

This reasoning would give Congress unlimited police power, whereas the founders granted the national government only limited authority to regulate interstate commerce.

We accordingly reject the argument that Congress may regulate non-economic violent criminal conduct, based solely on that conduct's remote effect on interstate commerce.

Petitioner's Fourteenth Amendment argument is also foreclosed by our precedents.

Shortly after the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, we decided two cases interpreting the Amendment's provisions, United States against Harris and the Civil Rights cases.

In those cases we concluded that Congress' enforcement power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment is limited to the regulation of states and state actors. although, petitioners rely on dicta from several subsequent cases in arguing that Section 5 grants Congress authority to regulate private persons.