Rights of Women V. States Hits High Court ; Federalism Case Heard Today May Pivot on Justice O'Connor

Article excerpt

In the biggest moment of the current term, the US Supreme Court today takes up a case that pits women's rights - as defined by federal law - against states' rights.

The case will help determine how far the justices may go in redressing the balance of power between Washington and the states - a major thrust of the Rehnquist court. It will also help clarify the philosophy of a key swing vote on these important federalism issues: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

At issue is the Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress in 1994. The law gives victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers for money damages in federal court. The court will consider whether the issue falls under the purview of federal lawmakers or whether the law intrudes into areas reserved for state regulation.

As lawyers on both sides make their arguments today in the crimson-curtained courtroom, all eyes will be on Justice O'Connor, who many expect to cast the deciding vote. Indeed, the case may force her to choose between the principles of women's rights and federalism, both of which she has staunchly supported in the past.

The law's opponents say it does nothing less than violate the balance of federal and state power laid down in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. Supporters, including attorneys general of 36 states, say the law is a civil-rights enactment that helps women overcome the bias of state and local law-enforcement officials who treat gender-based violence as a second-rate crime.

The high court is split on the issue, hence the spotlight on Justice O'Connor. If she sides with women's rights and upholds the law, it would mark a significant setback to the cause of federalism and states' rights, potentially undermining two important federalism rulings she helped to decide.

On the other hand, if she views the case through the prism of federalism, it would represent a defeat for efforts to bolster civil rights and women's rights. That, in turn, could make it harder for victims of gender-motivated violence to fight assailants by using federal law and federal courts.

"If the Supreme Court [strikes down the law], it would be a tremendous step backward, not only for women's rights but for civil rights generally," says Martha Davis of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is arguing in support of the law before the court.

To states' rights advocates, the case will test the resolve of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court to buttress two landmark decisions that limited congressional power when it was exercised at the states' expense.

The case follows action by the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which struck down the Violence Against Women Act on grounds it exceeded Congress's authority to enact legislation under the commerce clause and under equal-protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment. …