The Violence Against Women Act was supposed to prevent, not inflict, violence against women. The case of United States v. Morrison, now before the Supreme Court, shows how feminists and lawyers use this law to pursue their own interests at the expense of their victim-clients.
In April 1995, then-freshman Christy Brzonkala complained to Virginia Tech University officials that she had been gang-raped more than six months earlier by two male student-athletes in a dormitory room.
After disciplinary hearings school officials concluded there was no rape, but put one of the accused men on probation for “using abusive language.” A criminal investigation followed, and the local grand jury declined to indict either of the accused.
In March 1996 Brzonkala sued Virginia Tech and the men in federal court, claiming that the school had violated her civil rights and the men had committed “a crime of violence motivated by gender” under the Federal Violence Against Women Act.
Three months later, the federal district judge dismissed these claims, finding that Congress lacks authority under the U.S. Constitution to make a federal offense out of an alleged rape that was neither “interstate” nor “commerce.” He specifically noted that Brzonkala could pursue her claims through a civil case in state court — as indeed she could have at any time after the incident.
What happened then? Did the young woman, having already suffered for two years, go across the street to a Virginia state court and sue for the same damages based on the same alleged conduct?
No. Instead, her lawyers appealed, and in March 1999 the federal appeals court ultimately reached the same conclusion as the trial judge: The Constitution does not permit Congress to regulate private conduct that is not interstate and not commerce. Now the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Over five years have passed since the original incident. One has to wonder, wouldn’t Brzonkala have been better off choosing a speedy trial?
If she had sued in Virginia state court invoking traditional claims of assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, her case probably would have gone to trial within six months or a year. The trial probably would have lasted a week. Appeals in Virginia typically take a year or less. Had Brzonkala chosen to sue in state court, her case would be long over. Instead her lawyers have spent over five years pursuing a federal claim that appears patently unconstitutional.
What’s driving this attenuated case? The victim’s best interests? No, greedy lawyers. For the bottom-line difference between a federal “gender” case and a traditional state tort action is how much the lawyers may get in fees.
Federal law would award the winner’s attorneys’ fees at prevailing hourly rates, whereas in state tort cases lawyers typically are compensated with a percentage (usually one-third) of the damages or settlement.
The Violence Against Women Act is only one of many federal laws that benefit trial lawyers by making federal civil rights claims out of actions previously addressed as state tort claims. Under federal laws, if the jury ultimately awards the plaintiff even one dollar in damages, her lawyers may be entitled to thousands in fees, paid by whatever “deep pocket” defendant they can rope into the case.
Increasingly that defendant is a school or school district, especially since the Supreme Court’s ruling last year holding schools potentially liable for student-on-student sexual harassment. Had the Violence Against Women Act never been enacted, Ms. Brzonkala could have had her day in a Virginia court long ago. Instead, her interests have been hijacked by opportunistic feminists and trial lawyers.. This federal law makes America safe for lawyers, not women.