Women’s rights exist at the national level

Limiting the powers of the federal government by shifting responsibility to the states is generally a good thing. When a woman is raped, though, our entire nation should be concerned.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has voted 7-4 to uphold a lower court’s ruling that the Violence Against Women Act infringed upon states’ rights to self governance. The ruling, written by Judge J. Michael Luttig, stated, “Such a statute, we are constrained to conclude, simply cannot be reconciled with the principles of limited federal government upon which this nation is founded.” Yet recognizing and supporting the civil rights of all people is the responsibility of the federal government, not of individual states.
The 1994 act was intended to uphold the civil rights of women by allowing them to sue individuals who sexually attack them independently of any criminal proceedings. Several months after the law was enacted, Christy Brzonkala, a Virginia Tech student who has allowed her name to be disclosed, alleged that two football players raped her in a dormitory. Although she did not file criminal charges, Brzonkala sued her accused attackers, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, and Virginia Tech. Her lawyers argued that gender-motivated violence harms individual commerce by imposing medical and legal costs on victims, inhibiting travel by those who fear violence and lessening productivity.
The Circuit Court ruling, which is binding in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina, effectively said Brzonkala could not seek damages, though an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected.
While frivolous lawsuits congest our courts, seeking reparations for damages caused by a sexual assault is anything but frivolous. Unlike lawsuits based on coffee that was too hot or fake neck injuries after an auto accident, the trampling on a woman’s civil rights, which a rape represents, demands accountability by individuals.
There is a tension in our justice system. On one hand, we want criminals to be punished for their crimes. A jail sentence represents not just a deterrent to others, but also satisfies the desire for revenge society has in the face of a reprehensible act. On the other hand, criminals should repair the damage they have done. Obviously a murder victim cannot be brought back to life and a rape cannot be undone. However, victims can receive payment that will alleviate pain and replace loss as best as can be done.
Our Constitution guarantees individuals the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are rights endowed to all citizens of the United States, regardless of the particular state in which they live. As such, it is the responsibility of the federal government to protect these rights. The Violence Against Women Act is not an infringement on the powers of the states, but a pledge that the rights of women will be protected. A rape pushes these rights aside. It is an attack on a woman’s body, and, more importantly, it is an attack on woman’s humanity.
When a rapist disregards a woman’s humanity, he must be called upon to pay for his crime. Payment is owed to society and to the victim. Our courts must ensure the bill is delivered.