The Supreme Court said yesterday it would use the case of a Virginia Tech student who claims she was raped by two football players to decide whether Congress overstepped its power when it allowed women to sue rapists, stalkers and other attackers.
In a dispute that has drawn national attention, Christy Brzonkala sued Antonio J. Morrison and James Landale Crawford under the Violence Against Women Act for the alleged 1994 dormitory attack. A federal appeals court ruled against her, saying Congress exceeded its authority when it passed the 1994 law permitting victims of gender-based violence to win money damages in civil litigation.
By taking up Brzonkala's appeal, and one by the Justice Department defending the law, the high court is poised to decide both the constitutionality of the law--championed by women's rights advocates and a majority of state attorneys general--and the extent of Congress's powers to address civil rights problems in the states.
In a series of recent rulings, the Supreme Court has curtailed congressional power in favor of the states.
The Judicial Conference, composed of the nation's top federal judges, also has complained about the law in objecting to Congress's trend of turning local offenses into federal crimes.
When the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the violence act earlier this year, it said, "Such a statute. . . . cannot be reconciled with the principles of limited federal government upon which this nation is founded."
But Martha Davis, legal director for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents Brzonkala, said her appeal is bolstered by the fact that 31 states have urged the court to uphold the law.
"This isn't an area in which the states are saying their authority is being impinged," she said. Davis added that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a member of the five-justice bloc that has struck down federal statutes that tread on the traditional domain of the states, may be influenced by the women's rights issues in Brzonkala v. Morrison.
Brzonkala, who was a freshman in 1994, claims that within minutes of meeting Morrison and Crawford, they pinned her on a bed in her dormitory and took turns raping her.
Brzonkala stopped going to classes, became depressed and eventually dropped out of Virginia Tech, officially known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
No criminal charges were filed against the men.
Michael R. Rosman of the Center for Individual Rights, representing Morrison and Crawford, had urged the Supreme Court to let the 4th Circuit ruling stand, emphasizing that other appeals courts had yet to weigh in on the law's constitutionality.
The announcement yesterday of nine new cases was the result of the justices' first big conference of the 1999-2000 term. The justices have a total of 44 new cases for the session, which officially begins with oral arguments on Oct. 4.
Among the other important appeals taken yesterday are:
* Whether states can give grandparents visitation rights, an important question at a time when families are increasingly splintered.
The case involves grandparents in Washington state who, after their son committed suicide, were denied visits with their granddaughters by the girls' mother.
The grandparents sought visitation rights under a state law that allowed them if they were in the child's best interest. But the Washington Supreme Court struck down the law, saying it interferes with a parent's fundamental interest in the care of a child; it found the statute unconstitutional based on the 14th Amendment's liberty interest and inherent right of privacy. (Troxel v. Granville).
* Whether health maintenance organizations and their physicians can be sued under federal law for policies that give physicians incentives to keep costs down and potentially influence medical care.
The case was brought by an Illinois woman whose appendix ruptured after her physician delayed diagnostic tests.
The court will hear Pegram v. Herdrich at a time when the related question of whether patients should have the right to sue their managed-care plans for malpractice has become a point of contention, as Congress and legislators around the country debate how much to limit the powers of HMOs.
* Whether a state's restrictions on abortion protests violate free speech rights.
Colorado stops anyone who comes within 100 feet of a health clinic from leafletting, displaying signs or engaging in other so-called sidewalk counseling within eight feet of a clinic visitor or any other person, unless they have given their permission. A state court upheld the law, saying it properly balanced the right to protest and the right to obtain medical care. (Hill v. Colorado).