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United States v. Morrison

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Brief Fact Summary.

Christy Brzonkala, a Virginia Tech student, sued Antonio Morrison, James Crawford, and Virginia Tech under VAWA,  alleging that Morrison and Crawford assaulted and raped her. VAWA provided a civil remedy for victims of violent gender-based crime.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress may not regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct under the Commerce Clause solely because the conduct, in aggregate, effects interstate commerce.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Interpretations such as those in opinion letters--like interpretations contained in policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines, all of which lack the force of law--do not warrant Chevron-style deference.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

Section 13981 of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994  (VAWA) established a right to be free from violent, gender-motivated crime, and established a civil remedy for those who commited such crimes—that is, it provided an avenue for victims to file private, non-criminal complaints against perpetrators. Christy Brzonkala was a student at Virignia Tech who alleged that two other students—Antonio Morrison and James Crawford—assaulted and repeatedly raped her. As a result, she sought psychiatric care and withdrew from the university. She sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech under section 13981 of VAWA the following year. Morrison and Crawford moved to dismiss her complaint, arguing that § 13981’s civil remedy was unconstitutional.

Issue.

Did Congress have the authority under the Commerce Clause to pass the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA)?

Held.

No, Congress did not have the authority under the Commerce Clause to pass VAWA.

Dissent.

Justice Souter

Justice Souter argued that VAWA is distinguishable from the statute at issue in Lopez because there were significant congressional findings showing the effets of violence against women on interstate commerce. He also argued that history and logic show that the Supreme Court cannot hold that some categories of subject matter are beyond the reach of the Comemrce Clause.

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer argued that the economic vs. noneconomic distinction is difficult to apply and achieves arbitrary results.

Concurrence.

Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas argued that the substantial effects test under the Commerce Clause is inconsistent with Congress’ powers and Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

Discussion.

The Supreme Court cited United States v. Lopez, in which the Supreme Court cited various considerations in its Commerce Clause analysis: the statute at issue in Lopez was a criminal statute that had nothing to do with commerce or any economic enterprise; the statute contianed no jurisdictional element that could limit its reach; neither the statute nor its legislative history contained express congressional findings on the regulated activity’s effects on interstate commerce; and the attenuated nature of the link between the regulated activity and a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

The Supreme Court found that VAWA, like the statute at issue in Lopez, regulated activity that was not related to economic activity, and it had no jurisdictional limit. While VAWA was supported by congressional findings about the impact of gender-based violence, those findings were not alone sufficient to sustain VAWA under the Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court also found that Congress used a rejected method of but-for

Most relevant in the context of causation in tort and criminal law, but-for reasoning establishes causation between X (cause) and Y (result) where Y would not have happened but for X.

reasoning that blurred the Constitution’s distinction between national and local authority.


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