United States v. Morrison

Last updated
United States v. Morrison
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 11, 2000
Decided May 15, 2000
Full case nameUnited States v. Antonio J. Morrison et al. and Christy Brzonkala v. Antonio J. Morrison et al.
Docket nos. 99-5
Citations529 U.S. 598 ( more )
120 S. Ct. 1740; 146 L. Ed. 2d 658; 2000 U.S. LEXIS 3422; 68 U.S.L.W. 4351; 82 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (Daily Journal DAR 5061; 2000 Colo. J. C.A.R. 2583; 13 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 287
Argument Oral argument
Case history
PriorBrzonkala v. Va. Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., 935 F. Supp. 779 (W.D. Va. 1996), aff'd, 169 F.3d 820
Congress did not regulate an activity that substantially affected interstate commerce and therefore the Commerce Clause does not permit the enactment of the Act and the 14th Amendment is not applicable since a state wasn't responsible for the alleged harm caused.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens  · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia  · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter  · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg  · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityRehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
DissentSouter, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer
DissentBreyer, joined by Stevens; Souter, Ginsburg (Part I-A)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 3; U.S. Const. Amend. XIV; 42 U.S.C. § 13981

United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), is a US Supreme Court decision that held that parts of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 were unconstitutional because they exceeded the powers granted to the US Congress under the Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Along with United States v. Lopez (1995), it was part of a series of Rehnquist Court cases that limited Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause.


The case arose from a challenge to a provision of the Violence Against Women Act that provided victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court. In a majority opinion joined by four other justices, Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that the Commerce Clause gave Congress only the power to regulate activities that were directly economic in nature, even if there were indirect economic consequences. Rehnquist also held that the Equal Protection Clause did not authorize the law because that clause applies only to acts by states, not to acts by private individuals. In his dissent, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the majority was reviving an old and discredited interpretation of the Commerce Clause.


In 1994, the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which contained a provision at 42 U.S.C.   § 13981 for a federal civil remedy to victims of gender-based violence, even if no criminal charges had been filed against the alleged perpetrator of that violence.

That fall, at Virginia Tech, freshman student Christy Brzonkala was allegedly assaulted and raped repeatedly by fellow students Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. During the school-conducted hearing on her complaint, Morrison admitted having sexual contact with her despite the fact that she had twice told him "no." [1] College proceedings failed to punish Crawford, but initially punished Morrison with a suspension (which was later struck down by the administration). A state grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to charge either man with a crime. [2] Brzonkala then filed suit under the Violence Against Women Act.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia held that Congress lacked authority to enact 42 U.S.C. § 13981. [3] A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision 2–1. [4] The Fourth Circuit reheard the case en banc and reversed the panel, upholding the district court. [5]


The court, in a 5–4 decision, invalidated the section of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 that gave victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court, although program funding remained unaffected. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, held that Congress lacked authority, under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment, to enact this provision.

Majority opinion

The Court majority ruled that VAWA exceeded congressional power under the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.

Commerce Clause

With regard to the Commerce Clause, the majority said that the result was controlled by United States v. Lopez (1995), which had held that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was unconstitutional. There as in Morrison, the Court stressed "enumerated powers" that limit federal power in order to maintain "a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local." Lopez therefore limited the scope of the Commerce Clause to exclude activity that was not directly economic in nature, even if there were indirect economic consequences. Lopez was the first significant limitation on the Commerce Clause powers of Congress in 53 years. The Lopez court stated that Congress may regulate (1) use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) the "instrumentalities" (for example, vehicles) used in interstate commerce, and (3) activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. Because VAWA's civil remedy concededly did not regulate the first or second categories, the Morrison court analyzed its validity under the third.

The majority concluded that acts of violence such as those that VAWA was meant to remedy had only an "attenuated" effect, not a substantial one, on interstate commerce. The government, however, argued that "a mountain of evidence" indicated that these acts in the aggregate did have a substantial effect; for this proposition it relied on Wickard v. Filburn (1942), which held that Congress could regulate an individual act that lacked a substantial effect on interstate commerce if, when aggregated, acts of that sort had the required relation to interstate commerce. Once again relying on Lopez, the majority replied that the aggregation principle of Wickard did not apply because economic effects of crimes against women were indirect, and therefore could not be addressed through the Commerce Clause.

The Court explained that the need to distinguish between economic activities that directly and those that indirectly affect interstate commerce was due to "the concern that we expressed in Lopez that Congress might use the Commerce Clause to completely obliterate the Constitution’s distinction between national and local authority." Referring to Lopez, the Court said: "Were the Federal Government to take over the regulation of entire areas of traditional State concern, areas having nothing to do with the regulation of commercial activities, the boundaries between the spheres of federal and State authority would blur." The majority further stated, "[I]t is difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power, even in areas such as criminal law enforcement or education where States historically have been sovereign." Justice Thomas's concurring opinion also expressed the concern that "Congress [was] appropriating State police powers under the guise of regulating commerce."

The majority, quoting from NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937), said that the scope of the interstate commerce power

must be considered in the light of our dual system of government and may not be extended so as to embrace effects upon interstate commerce so indirect and remote that to embrace them, in view of our complex society, would effectually obliterate the distinction between what is national and what is local and create a completely centralized government.

Equal Protection Clause

The Court also held that Congress lacked the power to enact VAWA under the Fourteenth Amendment, relying on the "state action" doctrine. This doctrine, which originated in United States v. Harris (1883) and the Civil Rights Cases (1883), provides that the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment do not constrain private individuals.

The United States Government argued that VAWA appropriately enforced the Equal Protection Clause's ban on governmental gender discrimination. Specially, the Government argued that pervasive gender stereotypes and assumptions permeated state justice systems, and that these forms of state bias led to "insufficient investigation and prosecution of gender-motivated crime, inappropriate focus on the behavior and credibility of the victims of that crime, and unacceptably lenient punishments for those who are actually convicted of gender-motivated violence." This bias, the government argued, deprived women of the equal protection of the laws, and the private civil remedy of VAWA was meant to redress "both the States' bias and deter future instances of gender discrimination in the state courts."

The Court responded that, even if there had been gender-based disparate treatment by state authorities in this case, precedents such as the Civil Rights Cases limit the manner in which Congress may remedy discrimination, and require that a civil remedy be directed at a State or state actor instead of a private party. Such precedents, said the Court, prohibit only state action—i.e., action by state governments—and not private conduct. In other words, unequal enforcement of state laws caused by inaction is, by this interpretation, beyond the scope of the federal government's enforcement of the equal protection clause.

The majority reaffirmed the state action doctrine, and specifically reaffirmed the results reached in United States v. Harris (1883) and the Civil Rights Cases (1883), both decided fifteen years after the Fourteenth Amendment's ratification in 1868. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Court had held that the Equal Protection Clause applied only to acts done by states, not to acts done by private individuals. Because the Civil Rights Act of 1875 applied to racial discrimination in private establishments, the Court said in the Civil Rights Cases, it exceeded congressional enforcement power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Harris, the Court ruled that the Clause did not apply to a prison lynching, since the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to private actors, as opposed to state actors. A sheriff (a state actor) had tried to prevent the lynching.

According to Morrison, "assuming that there has been gender-based disparate treatment by state authorities in this case, it would not be enough to save § 13981's civil remedy, which is directed not at a State or state actor but at individuals who have committed criminal acts motivated by gender bias." The Court agreed with the government that there was a "voluminous congressional record" supporting the "assertion that there is pervasive bias in various state justice systems against victims of gender-motivated violence," and the Court also agreed with the government that "state-sponsored gender discrimination violates equal protection unless it serves important governmental objectives...." However, according to the majority, even if there is unconstitutional state action, that only justifies Congress in targeting the state actors, rather than targeting private parties.

The government's argument was that VAWA had been enacted in response to "gender-based disparate treatment by state authorities," while in contrast there was "no indication of such state action" in the Civil Rights Cases. According to the Court, however, the Civil Rights Cases held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not allow Congress to target private parties in order to remedy the unequal enforcement of state laws. To support this interpretation of the Civil Rights Cases, the Court quoted one of the Congressmen who had supported the law that the Civil Rights Cases struck down: "There were state laws on the books bespeaking equality of treatment, but in the administration of these laws there was discrimination against newly freed slaves." To the majority, this quote indicated that the law deemed unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases was meant to combat the same kind of disparate treatment against which VAWA was aimed.

The majority continued that even if the government's distinction between Morrison and the Civil Rights Cases was valid, the VAWA still was unconstitutionally aimed not at state actors but at private criminal conduct. Under City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), the majority stated, Congress was required to adhere to the Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the Court's interpretation of the state-action doctrine. The "congruence and proportionality" requirement of Boerne did not allow Congress to exceed the Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although it had been widely believed that section five of the Fourteenth Amendment was a "one-way ratchet," in which Congress could go beyond, but not fall short of, the Court's interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, [6] that interpretation had been rejected by the Court in Boerne in order to prevent what the Court described as "a considerable congressional intrusion into the States' traditional prerogatives and general authority."

The belief that section five was a "one-way ratchet" had been based on Katzenbach v. Morgan , 384 U.S. 641 (1966), in which the Court had said that section five of the Fourteenth Amendment was "a positive grant of legislative power authorizing Congress to exercise its discretion in determining the need for and nature of legislation to secure Fourteenth Amendment guarantees." In Morrison, the Court, as it had in Boerne, again distinguished Morgan, on the ground that Morgan had involved federal legislation "directed at New York officials" instead of private parties. The Morrison Court also noted that, unlike the VAWA, the legislation in Morgan "was directed only to the State where the evil found by Congress existed."

Dissenting opinions

Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, argued that enacting VAWA was well within congressional power under the Commerce Clause, and stated that the majority was reviving an old and discredited interpretation of the Commerce Clause. Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, argued that it was primarily the responsibility of Congress, and not the courts, to put limits on Congress's power under the Commerce Clause. Joined by Justice Stevens, Justice Breyer contended that Congress had been sensitive to concerns of federalism in enacting VAWA, and expressed doubts about the majority's pronouncements on the Fourteenth Amendment. According to the four dissenting justices, the Fourteenth Amendment and Seventeenth Amendment "are not rips in the fabric of the Framers' Constitution, inviting judicial repairs," and that amendments affecting states' rights like the Seventeenth Amendment "did not convert the judiciary into an alternate shield against the commerce power." [7]


Morrison, like Boerne, Kimel and Garrett , was part of a series of Rehnquist Court decisions from 1999 through 2001 holding that Congress' enumerated powers do not permit various federal civil rights laws. [8] The United States v. Morrison decision was also seen by the press as part of the Rehnquist Court's series of federalism decisions, mainly because of the Court's previous decisions in Lopez and other cases. [9]

The Washington Post came out in favor of the Morrison decision: "The court got it right. If Congress could federalize rape and assault, it's hard to think of anything it couldn't." [10] Lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer agreed with the courts that Congress had overstepped its bounds by invoking the Commerce Clause: "The price of upholding VAWA's civil rights remedy is an unconstitutional grant of unlimited power to Congress, power that will not always be used wisely or with regard to individual rights. We need to combat sexual violence without making a federal case of it." [11]

Professor Catharine MacKinnon criticizes the Morrison decision for relying on "implicitly patriarchal" legal reasoning. She argues that the Morrison decision reflects an attitude, pervasive in the American judicial system, that violence against women is a "domestic" issue and therefore less serious than "male issues." [12] Law Professor Peter M. Shane said that the attorneys general of 36 states had endorsed the VAWA, and Shane argued that the endorsement "exposes one of the more bizarre aspects of the Supreme Court's recent activism on behalf of state sovereignty: From the states' point of view, this campaign is often pointless and sometimes counterproductive." [13] According to Shane, the 36 attorneys general called the Violence Against Women Act "a particularly appropriate remedy for the harm caused by gender-motivated violence."

See also


  1. United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).
  2. Taylor, Stuart. "Court to Congress: You can't regulate everything by Stuart Taylor Jr.", National Journal (1999-03-13). Retrieved 2007-02-13.
  3. Brzonkala v. Va. Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., 935F. Supp.779 ( W.D. Va. 1996).
  4. Brzonkala v. Va. Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., 132F.3d949 ( 4th Cir. 1997).
  5. Brzonkala v. Va. Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., 169F.3d820 ( 4th Cir. 1999).
  6. See, e.g., Stephen L. Carter, "The Morgan 'Power' and the Forced Reconsideration of Constitutional Decisions", 53 U. Chi. L. Rev. 819 (1986); William Cohen, "Congressional Power to Interpret Due Process and Equal Protection", 27 Stan L. Rev. 603 (1975).
  7. Justice Souter’s dissent, which was joined by Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer, May 15, 2000
  8. But see Jonathan H. Adler, "Is Morrison Dead? Assessing a Supreme Court Drug (Law) Overdose", Lewis & Clark L. Rev. (Winter 2005) (discussing Gonzalez v. Raich )
  9. Masters, Brooke. "No Winners in Rape Lawsuit", The Washington Post, May 19, 2000: "Although the case started as a classic 'he said, she said,' by the time it reached the Supreme Court, U.S. v. Morrison was all about federalism, not sexual politics."
  10. Washington Post, Editorial: States’ Business, (2000-05-16). Retrieved 2007-02-13.
  11. Kaminer, Wendy. "Sexual Congress", American Prospect (2000-02-14). Retrieved 2007-02-13. Kaminer's article also stated:
    "Try the common sense test: When you think of a rape in a college dormitory, do you think about interstate commerce? As the Fourth Circuit noted in Brzonkala, the relationship between sexual violence and interstate commerce is rather attenuated....Do you want Congress to enjoy unrestricted regulatory power over you? (Do you want your divorce in federal court? Do you want Congress making local zoning decisions for your town?) The Supreme Court in Lopez rightly held that the Commerce Clause is not a grant of general police power....This standard does not unduly limit congressional power, including the power to prohibit discrimination. It does not invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Segregation in hotels and restaurants, on transportation systems, and in the workplace involved commercial activities with clear and substantial effects upon interstate commerce." "Sexual Congress". Archived from the original on November 1, 2005. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  12. Catharine A. MacKinnon, "Disputing Male Sovereignty: On United States v. Morrison", 114 Harv. L. Rev. 135 (2000–2001)
  13. Shane, Peter. "In Whose Best Interests? Not the States", Washington Post (2000-05-21). Also see Mauro, Tony. "States' Rights Triumph in Supreme Court Kimel Decision, Oral VAWA Argument", Legal Intelligencer (2000-01-12); Greenhouse, Linda. "Justices Cool to Law Protecting Women", New York Times, (2000-01-12)

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