By Deborah Mesce
Thursday, July 27, 2000
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced legislation Thursday that would restore the ability of rape and other victims of gender violence to sue their attackers in federal court. The bill was filed in response to a Supreme Court ruling in May that struck down a key portion of the Violence Against Women Act.
"The bill will ensure that victims have fair and equal access to the courts in cases of gender-based violence," said Conyers, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill, called the Violence Against Women Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2000, is co-sponsored by 43 other House members. It would navigate around the Supreme Court decision by allowing lawsuits in cases that are connected to interstate commerce. The high court had ruled that the original law was unconstitutional because it did not make a strong enough connection to interstate commerce to justify superseding state laws.
Under Conyers' bill, victims could sue their attackers in federal court if at the time of the attack the victim or the attacker was traveling in interstate or foreign commerce such as by using a road, telephone or the Internet, or the attacker used a weapon or controlled substance that had traveled in interstate commerce. It also would include attacks that interfered with commercial activity in which the victim was engaged at the time.
The Violence Against Women Act was intended to fill gaps left by the inadequacy of state laws that address gender-based crime. The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped to draft the law and represented the victim who filed suit under the law, said Conyers' legislation will "put us on the corrective path to counter the court's grave error and to attempt to reassert congressional authority to protect civil rights."
The case taken to the Supreme Court involved a Virginia Polytechnic Institute student who had filed a lawsuit against two football players who, she said, raped her at a party in 1994. When Virginia Tech failed to discipline her assailants, the student turned to federal court in 1996 and became the first person to sue under the Violence Against Women Act.
The court split 5-4 on the decision--with Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the majority, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The decision written by Rehnquist alarmed many in the progressive legal community because he indicated that the historic 1963 civil rights laws might also fail constitutional muster.
Conyers said the decision "vividly demonstrates the important role the next president will have in shaping the composition of the Supreme Court and ensuring that the court respect Congress' authority to protect the civil rights of our citizens."