United States v. Morrison

Following is the case brief for United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000)

Case Summary of United States v. Morrison:

  • Virginia Tech freshman Christy Brzonkala accused fellow classmates Antonio Morrison and James Crawford of raping her.
  • Brzonkala sought justice through the school’s sexual assault policy, and Morrison was found guilty of sexual assault.  He was suspended for two semesters.  Crawford was not punished at all.
  • After a second hearing, Morrison received the same suspension.  Yet, a school administrator eventually reversed the suspension, stating that it was “excessive.”
  • Brzonkala then sued both men in federal court under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • The federal district court found the Act unconstitutional, and a full panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the Violence Against Women Act was not a proper exercise of federal authority under the Commerce Clause, nor was it permitted under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

United States v. Morrison Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

  • The Attack and School Hearings

Christy Brzonkala, while a freshman at Virginia Tech, claimed that Virginia Tech football players Antonio Morrison and James Crawford assaulted and raped her within 30 minutes of meeting her.  Morrison was also well-known for making horrific and offensive comments about women, and about his treatment of them.

Brzonkala sought justice through the school’s Sexual Assault Policy.  Crawford was never punished, but Morrison admitted to raping her and was found to have committed sexual assault.  He was suspended for two semesters.  He sought a rehearing, which resulted in the same conclusion.  He then appealed.  A school administrator reversed the suspension, claiming that it was “excessive.”  Christy Brzonkala ultimately dropped out of Virginia Tech due to depression and the school’s poor handling of her case.

  • Brzonkala’s Violence Against Women Act Lawsuit

Brzonkala then sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech in federal district court.  Her complaint against Morrison and Crawford was that they violated the Violence Against Women Act.  Morrison and Crawford moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that it failed to state a claim and that the Act’s civil remedy was unconstitutional.  The United States intervened to defendant the Act’s constitutionality.

Procedural History:

  • The district court found that Brzonkala stated a claim under the Violence Against Women Act, but that the Act’s civil remedy was unconstitutional.
  • The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals initially reversed the district court’s decision on constitutionality, but the full panel of the Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the district court’s decision.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is the Violence Against Women Act’s civil remedy constitutional under the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment?  No.


The decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Congress does not have the authority under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment to provide a private right of action in the Violence Against Women Act.


The Court will only invalidate a federal law when it is clear that Congress exceeded its authority under the Constitution.  Here, Congress exceeded its authority with the civil right of action in the Violence Against Women Act.

  • Commerce Clause Analysis

With regard to Congress exceeding its authority under the Commerce Clause, three important inquiries relevant in United States v. Lopez are instructive here.

First, the Act deals with gender-motivated crimes of violence, and therefore has no relation to commerce or economic activity.  Second, the Act has no jurisdictional element stating that Congress’ authority is based on regulating interstate commerce.  Finally, even though there are ample Congressional findings on the impact gender-motivated violence has on victims and their families, that impact on interstate commerce is attenuated at best.

  • Fourteenth Amendment Analysis

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that Congress may enforce the right that no State shall deprive a person of life, liberty or property, nor deny the equal protection of the law.  While Congress does have the power to protect constitutional rights, Congress’ enforcement power is directed at state action, not private conduct.

Criminal law is generally the province of the States.  Federalism principles demand that the Fourteenth Amendment not be used to allow Congress to take over all criminal law enforcement.

Further, stare decisis compels the Court to honor the limitations on Congress’ authority under the Fourteenth Amendment.  While Brzonkala argues that the State allows gender-bias in its law enforcement systems, this case is directed at the criminal conduct of Morrison and Crawford, not the State’s acts of gender bias.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Thomas):

The Court correctly applied Lopez.  However, the Court should do away with the “substantial effects test” under the Commerce Clause, so Congress does not believe it has limitless authority under the Commerce Clause.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter):

There is a long line of Court precedents that view Congress’ power broadly and deferentially under the Commerce Clause.  Therefore, the Court’s limited view of Congress’ power in this case goes against those precedents.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

Congress has the ability to exercise its authority under the Commerce Clause responsibly without this Court’s own limitations.  This case shows the difficulty with finding a workable standard to judge the parameters of the Commerce Clause.  The Court’s Fourteenth Amendment reasoning is also dubious.  Yet, because the Act is constitutional under the Commerce Clause, no further analysis of the Fourteenth Amendment is necessary here.


United States v. Morrison is an important decision as it is a further step in the Court’s limiting of Congress’ authority to make laws under the Commerce Clause, and even seems to limit the Fourteenth Amendment beyond what the plain text of the Amendment provides.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments