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United States v. Morrison

United States v. Morrison (2000) is the United States Supreme Court decision that established clear limits to Congress's power to make laws under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.


In 1994, the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which contained a provision at 42 USC 13981 for a federal civil remedy to victims of gender-based violence, even when no criminal charges were filed.

That fall, Christy Brzonkala was assaulted and repeatedly raped by Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, members of the football team at her college, Virginia Tech. After college proceedings failed to punish Morrison and Crawford, Christy filed suit under the Violence Against Women Act.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia held Congress lacked authority to enact 42 USC 13981. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed 2-1. The Fourth Circuit reheard en banc and reversed again, upholding the district court.

The Supreme Court affirmed ruling Congress did not have authority to enact the law under the Commerce Clause nor the Fourteenth Amendment.


United States v. Lopez, a recent relevant case, says Congress may regulate "activities that have a substantial relation to interstate commerce ... activities that substantially affect interstate commerce". (Lopez decided that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, making possession of a firearm in a school zone a federal crime, was not a valid exercise of Commerce Clause authority.) As with Lopez, this case does not directly involve any kind of economic activity nor is it limited to things that have a special connection to interstate commerce. And while in this case the Congressional record finds that such activity, in the aggregate, has an impact on commerce, allowing Congress to regulate everything that had an "attenuated effect" on interstate commerce would essentially remove all limits on what Congress may enact.

As for the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress did have evidence that there was a bias that could deny victims of gender-motivated crimes equal protection of the laws. However, Congress refrained from correcting the problems that denied equal protection, and instead created an additional way to punish the criminals themselves. This causes two problems. First, the Fourteenth Amendment limits itself to states and state actors, of which the criminal is neither. Second, Fourteenth Amendment legislation must have a "congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end" -- additionally punishing criminals for the faults of the judicial system lacks the required proportionality.


More: Congressional power of enforcement, List of United States Supreme Court cases