In 1994, Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act. In the two years leading up to the act’s passage, Congress had numerous hearings and made extensive factual findings that gender-motivated violence substantially affected interstate commerce.
The United States government and a rape victim filed suit under the act against Virginia Tech for its lax punishment of the alleged rapists. In United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the school responded by arguing that Congress had overstepped its commerce power by creating a path for victims of gender-motivated violence to sue for money damages in federal court.
The case was litigated to the United States Supreme Court, which issued a divided opinion. A narrow majority of the Court held that non-economic activity cannot be subject to congressional regulation due to its substantial effect on interstate commerce. Because gender-motivated violence was non-economic, criminal behavior, it thus fell outside Congress’s authority to regulate under the Commerce Clause.
The damages provision of the act was thus struck down as unconstitutional.
The case remains significant, as it is one of the rare occasions in history that the Court has struck down a law for going beyond the reach of Congress’s commerce power.
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