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
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
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. …