VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT
Responding to the harm to women caused by domestic abuse, rape, stalking, sexual assault, and other forms of violence, in 1994 Congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA contained numerous provisions designed to reduce the frequency of violence against women, to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and to provide greater relief to victims. It also authorized $1.62 billion in federal funds over six years for these purposes. The most innovative provision of VAWA created a civil rights remedy allowing victims of violent crimes motivated by gender to bring a legal action against their perpetrators for monetary damages and other relief. However, in 2000, in United States v. Morrison, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the civil rights provision of VAWA was unconstitutional.
BACKGROUND AND KEY PROVISIONS
Congress enacted VAWA following extensive hearings on the pervasiveness of violence committed by men in the United States against women. Congress found that a principle effect of this gender-based violence was to exclude women from full participation in the economic sphere, including by undermining the ability of women to maintain employment and forcing many women into poverty and welfare dependency. Congress determined that existing state laws were inadequate to address the systematic violence against women because such laws often exempted marital rape and precluded recovery for torts committed by a victim's spouse or parent and because police, prosecutors, and judges tended to trivialize domestic violence, rape, and other crimes in which women were victims. Moreover, existing laws did not remedy crimes motivated specifically by gender bias that undermined the place of women as equal citizens.
VAWA used a multipronged approach to address violence against women. Subtitle A, labeled Safe Streets for Women, increased prisons sentences for perpetrators of federal sex crimes and imposed mandatory restitution to victims; provided funding for states to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women and to improve the safety of parks and public transportation; allowed the use of federal funds for rape prevention and educational programs; and amended the federal rules of evidence to prohibit introducing evidence about a victim's sexual behavior or history in rape trials and other cases. Subtitle B (Safe Homes for Women) funded a national domestic violence hotline, criminalized domestic violence committed across state lines, required states to recognize orders of protection issued in other states, required the collection of data at a federal level on sexual and domestic violence, and increased funding for women's shelters and to educate young people.
Subtitle C of VAWA (Civil Rights for Women), the provision at issue in the Morrison case, made certain gender-based crimes federal civil rights violations. This provision empowered victims of violent crimes motivated by gender to sue their attackers in federal or state court for compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief, and other remedies. VAWA defined a crime of violence broadly to include any felony under federal or state law against a person or against property if it entailed a serious risk of physical injury to a person. Such crimes were deemed motivated by gender, and therefore subject to a civil action, if committed because of the victim's gender or on the basis of gender and due to an animus toward the victim's gender. This provision made relief available to victims even if the perpetrator of gender-based violence had never been prosecuted under criminal law.
Subtitle D (Equal Justice for Women in the Courts) provided grants to educate judges and court personnel about rape and domestic violence and to study gender bias in the federal courts. Subtitle E (Violence Against Women Act Improvements) increased penalties for federal sex offenses, allowed victims of sexual assault free testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and funded studies about campus-based violence and battered women's syndrome. Subtitle F (National Stalker and Domestic Violence Reduction) enhanced record keeping and information sharing among federal, state, and local government on domestic violence and stalking offenses. Subtitle G (Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children) allowed battered immigrant women to seek lawful immigration status without the cooperation of an abusive spouse. Together, these provisions made VAWA a far-reaching response to violence against women.