WASHINGTON - Rape victims cannot sue their attackers in federal court, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying it is up to the states - not Congress - to give such help to women victimized by violence.
The 5-4 ruling threw out a key provision of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and continued the court's trend of expanding states' rights at the expense of the federal government.
''The Constitution requires a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local,'' Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.
The justices barred a federal lawsuit by former Virginia Tech student Christy Brzonkala against two football players she says raped her in a dormitory room.
Brzonkala ''alleges that she was the victim of a brutal assault,'' Rehnquist said. ''If the allegations here are true, no civilized system of justice could fail to provide her a remedy.... But under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States.''
Kathy Rodgers of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Brzonkala, said, ''I consider this to be a severe blow for women's rights because of the chilling effect it will have on Congress.''
''Congress identified a kind of gender discrimination,'' Rodgers said. ''Congress is trying to address that with a creative, specific solution and the court says, 'No, you can't do that.'''
Attorney Michael E. Rosman, who argued the case on behalf of the two men sued by Brzonkala, called the ruling ''a very good day for the Constitution and the rule of law.'' People who allege they are victims of gender-based violence ''have perfectly good remedies in state court,'' he said.
The decision affirmed a federal appeals court decision that threw out Brzonkala's lawsuit against student athletes Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. Brzonkala has allowed her name to be disclosed.
''Gender-motivated crimes of violence are not, in any sense of the phrase, economic activity,'' Rehnquist said. The justices rejected arguments by Brzonkala's lawyer and the Clinton administration that the law was needed because states are not doing enough to protect rape victims, and because gender-based violence restricts women's choices in jobs and travel.
That argument ''would allow Congress to regulate any crime as long as the nationwide, aggregated impact of that crime has substantial effects on employment, production, transit or consumption,'' Rehnquist said. ''Indeed, if Congress may regulate gender-motivated violence, it would be able to regulate murder or any other type of violence.''
The case is a follow-up to the Supreme Court's 1995 ruling that struck down as unconstitutional a law that made it a federal crime to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. The justices said gun possession was not sufficiently linked to interstate commerce and that the law usurped state authority over such crimes.
''I don't know what's next in line,'' Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, said Monday. ''The court really went off here in a way that I find extremely troublesome.''
At the White House, President Clinton issued a statement saying he is ''deeply disappointed'' that victims may no longer sue in federal court.
''Because I continue to believe that there should be remedies for victims of gender-motivated violence, we plan to study the Supreme Court's decision ... to determine the best means to help these victims,'' Clinton said.
Rehnquist's opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Those five have provided the majority in a number of 5-4 decisions that have boosted states' rights versus those of the federal government.
Dissenting were Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Writing for the four, Souter cited ''the mountain of data assembled by Congress, here showing the effects of violence against women on interstate commerce.'' Thirty-eight state attorneys general supported the right to sue in federal court, Souter noted.
George Washington University law professor Mary Cheh said the ruling ''signals that there is this ongoing attempt to reposition the states vis-a-vis the federal government.... This has the potential of keeping this train on the track. Where it ultimately goes, I don't know.''
The Violence Against Women Act also has criminal provisions, and those were not at issue in Monday's decision.
The cases are U.S. vs. Morrison, 99-5, and Brzonkala vs. Morrison, 99-29.
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