NOW Says Women Need Federal Protection

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

Update - includes statements by Justices O'Connor, Ginsburg and Scalia

Washington ( - Chanting slogans and waving placards that read "stop violence against women," the National Organization for Women (NOW) demonstrated on the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday in support of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

The federal law which protects women, but not men, from "violence motivated by gender," was ruled unconstitutional by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a decision that NOW spokesperson Kim Gandy told was "an aberration."

NOW president Patricia Ireland urged the Supreme Court to uphold the Violence Against Women Act as the nation's highest federal court began to hear oral arguments in Brzonkala v. Morrison, a case involving an alleged rape at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg in 1994.

"State courts are riddled with gender bias allowing violence against women to continue unchecked. Surely women must be able to look to Congress and the federal courts to enforce our civil rights and save women's lives," Ireland told

Although Brzonkala v. Morrison is not expected to be decided until July, statements by some of the Justices indicate they have doubts whether Congress can pass laws that allow victims to bypass state courts and sue criminals in federal court.

Lawyers representing the Virginia Tech student argued that violence against women is "one of the most persistent barriers to women's equality and full participation in the economy." Therefore, Congress can legislate on the issue because it involves interstate commerce.

By that logic, Congress could pass "general federal laws on all subjects because all crime affects interstate commerce," said Justice Antonin Scalia. The same argument could even be given to "justify a federal remedy for alimony or child support," added Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated support for VAWA saying that it could be viewed as an "alternative remedy" that supplements state laws.

It could be Congress' way of saying, "We aren't taking over the states' domain. We are just complementing what the states do. Why isn't that satisfactory?," asked Ginsburg.

In 1995 the Supreme Court may have set a precedent for how they rule in Brzonkala v. Morrison. They ruled then that the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which made it a crime to possess a gun within 1,000 yards of a school, was unconstitutional because it usurped the states' authority over gun laws. Attorneys tried unsuccessfully to link the matter to interstate commerce.

Others opposed to VAWA say that whether or not it applies to interstate commerce the law unfairly discriminates against men who have been victims of domestic violence.

"Why is it not called the Domestic Violence Act?," asked American Fathers Coalition legislative analyst Stuart Miller. "It is because the act is designed to advance the interests of one class of individuals based on race, sex or religion. This is discrimination," he told

Ed Bartlett, a senior policy advisor with Men's Health America, told that often violence directed at husbands by their wives goes unnoticed.

"Most cases of partner assault, however, are not considered a crime, so they don't show up in crime statistics," said Bartlett. "And most assaults against men, in particular, go unreported."