United States v. Morrison
529 U.S. 598 (2000)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Case





No. 99-5. Argued January 11, 2000-Decided May 15,2000*

Petitioner Brzonkala filed suit, alleging, inter alia, that she was raped by respondents while the three were students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and that this attack violated 42 U. S. C. § 13981, which provides a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence. Respondents moved to dismiss on the grounds that the complaint failed to state a claim and that § 13981's civil remedy is unconstitutional. Petitioner United States intervened to defend the section's constitutionality. In dismissing the complaint, the District Court held that it stated a claim against respondents, but that Congress lacked authority to enact § 13981 under either the Commerce Clause or § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which Congress had explicitly identified as the sources of federal authority for § 13981. The en banc Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Section 13981 cannot be sustained under the Commerce Clause or § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. pp. 607-627.

(a) The Commerce Clause does not provide Congress with authority to enact § 13981's federal civil remedy. A congressional enactment will be invalidated only upon a plain showing that Congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds. See United States v. Lopez, 514 U. S. 549, 568, 577-578. Petitioners assert that § 13981 can be sustained under Congress' commerce power as a regulation of activity that substantially affects interstate commerce. The proper framework for analyzing such a claim is provided by the principles the Court set out in Lopez. First, in Lopez, the noneconomic, criminal nature of possessing a firearm in a school zone was central to the Court's conclusion that Congress lacks authority to regulate such possession. Similarly, gender-motivated crimes of violence are not, in any sense, economic activity. Second, like the statute at issue in Lopez, § 13981 contains no jurisdictional element establishing that the federal cause of action is in pursuance of Congress' regulation of interstate commerce. Although Lopez makes clear that such a jurisdictional element would lend support to the argument that § 13981 is sufficiently tied to interstate commerce

*Together with No. 99-29, Brzonkala v. Morrison et al., also on certiorari to the same court.


to come within Congress' authority, Congress elected to cast § 13981's remedy over a wider, and more purely intrastate, body of violent crime. Third, although § 13981, unlike the Lopez statute, is supported by numerous findings regarding the serious impact of gender-motivated violence on victims and their families, these findings are substantially weakened by the fact that they rely on reasoning that this Court has rejected, namely, a but-for causal chain from the initial occurrence of violent crime to every attenuated effect upon interstate commerce. If accepted, this reasoning would allow Congress to regulate any crime whose nationwide, aggregated impact has substantial effects on employment, production, transit, or consumption. Moreover, such reasoning will not limit Congress to regulating violence, but may be applied equally as well to family law and other areas of state regulation since the aggregate effect of marriage, divorce, and childrearing on the national economy is undoubtedly significant. The Constitution requires a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local, and there is no better example of the police power, which the Founders undeniably left reposed in the States and denied the central Government, than the suppression of violent crime and vindication of its victims. Congress therefore may not regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on the conduct's aggregate effect on interstate commerce. Pp. 607-619.

(b) Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which permits Congress to enforce by appropriate legislation the constitutional guarantee that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process, or deny any person equal protection of the laws, City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507,517, also does not give Congress the authority to enact § 13981. Petitioners' assertion that there is pervasive bias in various state justice systems against victims of gendermotivated violence is supported by a voluminous congressional record. However, the Fourteenth Amendment places limitations on the manner in which Congress may attack discriminatory conduct. Foremost among them is the principle that the Amendment prohibits only state action, not private conduct. This was the conclusion reached in United States v. Harris, 106 U. S. 629, and the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S. 3, which were both decided shortly after the Amendment's adoption. The force of the doctrine of stare decisis behind these decisions stems not only from the length of time they have been on the books, but also from the insight attributable to the Members of the Court at that time, who all had intimate knowledge and familiarity with the events surrounding the Amendment's adoption. Neither United States v. Guest, 383 U. S. 745, nor District of Columbia v. Carter, 409 U. S. 418, casts any doubt on the enduring vitality of the Civil Rights Cases and Harris.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
Federalism principles are violated when the federal government gives women harmed by gender-based violence standing to sue assailants in federal court.
Virginia Tech freshman Christy Brzonkala claimed that she was assaulted and raped by two male students, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. Neither man was charged with a crime, and the university suspended Morrison before revoking the penalty while failing to punish Crawford at all. This was despite Morrison's own admission that he had engaged in intercourse with Brzonkala even after she said "no" twice.

Brzonkala then sought a legal remedy under the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law passed in 1994 that provided a right of action to victims of gender-based violence whose assailants had not been charged with a crime. The federal district court found that Congress had unconstitutionally exceeded its authority in attempting to provide this private right of action. An en banc review of the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court while disagreeing with the decision of its own panel.

Procedural History

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia - 935 F. Supp. 779 (W.D. Va. 1996)

Judgment for the defendants. The statute under which the plaintiff seeks a remedy is unconstitutional, leaving her with no basis to state a claim.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 69 F.3d 820 (4th Cir. 1999)

Affirmed. The provision in the Violence Against Women Act that provides a private right of action is an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional authority.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

In the majority's view, neither the Commerce Clause nor the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provided a valid foundation for this law. It relied on U.S. v. Lopez (1995) to strike down the Commerce Clause justification, since there was no direct economic activity being regulated. Rehnquist was not persuaded that indirect economic effects merited asserting this power for a local matter, even though the government tried to assert the aggregation principle used in the 1942 decision of Wickard v. Filburn. Otherwise, as the Court had warned in Lopez, a slippery slope could develop in which the Commerce Clause could allow Congress to completely erase the authority of states over areas traditionally within their concern. The police power, which was at the core of this case, historically had fallen within the sphere of state control.

Regarding the Fourteenth Amendment justification, Rehnquist reaffirmed the state action doctrine from 19th-century precedents, which limited civil remedies for discrimination to cases in which a state or state actor was responsible. Private parties cannot be sued for Equal Protection Clause violations, according to the majority, even though the government tried to justify VAWA on the basis of fighting pervasive sex stereotypes that were exacerbated by gender-based violence. In this case, however, the alleged wrongs for which the plaintiff sought relief originated from the conduct of two specific individuals rather than any state action condoning them. Prior to the Court's 1997 decision in City of Boerne v. Flores, the government might have successfully argued that Congress could create additional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment beyond what courts had permitted. Three years after that case, however, the majority used it as conclusive proof that the Court has sole control over determining the scope of rights provided by the Fourteenth Amendment, even if Section 5 gives legislatures the power to enforce those rights.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Attacking the majority's view of the Commerce Clause, Souter viewed the law as constitutional on that basis according to the long line of Court precedents that interpreted Congressional powers broadly and deferentially in this area. He did not address whether it was constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, since one source of justification was sufficient.


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Breyer differed from the majority on both Commerce Clause and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. He felt comfortable with allowing Congress to exercise its authority under the Commerce Clause responsibly without Court intervention. He also argued that the Fourteenth Amendment should not be read as conflicting with the rest of the Constitution so that it needed to be reconciled with the original document.

Case Commentary

Some commentators have found that this holding provides Congress with an overly restricted ability to take steps against systematic discrimination. Its reading of Section 5 in the Fourteenth Amendment seems narrower than what the text might permit. The Rehnquist Court has consistently limited the ability of the federal government to provide remedies for perceived civil rights decisions, and Morrison was hailed by many commentators as an appropriate check on legislative power. Others disagreed, pointing out that state attorneys general largely had endorsed the law, which meant that there was no real conflict between the federal government and the states. (A similar point could be made about several of the Court's other decisions related to federalism, which perceived tension where in reality there was very little.)

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.