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Violence against Women Act of (1994) - Further Readings

vawa provision gender court

A sweeping response to the perception of increased violence against women in America, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 was a broad-based law that created everything from funding of domestic-violence programs to new CIVIL RIGHTS remedies for women who were victims of gender-based attacks. The scope of the law made it somewhat controversial, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that at least one provision of the act was unconstitutional. But VAWA still managed to have a far-reaching effect on gender-based crime, and the reauthorization of the act in 2000 means that it will continue to have influence into the twenty-first century.

VAWA was first proposed in 1990, and support was subsequently strengthened by testimony before Congress of high numbers of crimes perpetrated against women every year, often by family members or boyfriends. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confirmation battle (see SEXUAL HARASSMENT "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Hearings") and subsequent election of unprecedented numbers of women to the U.S. Congress in 1992 also helped to spur the act's passage. When the VAWA was voted on as part of an Omnibus Crime bill in 1994, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of it in both houses.

VAWA can be divided into three separate areas where it attempts to combat violence against women. The first area, and probably the least controversial, was in the area of funding. VAWA provides $1.6 billion over six years for education, research, treatment of domestic and sex-crime victims, and the improvement of state criminal justice systems. It also distributed funds to increase safety for women on public transportation, for shelters, and for youth education programs. In addition, it provides funds for the training of judges and other court personnel in combating gender bias in the courts, and also authorizes funding to pay the cost of testing for sexually transmitted diseases for victims of SEXUAL ABUSE and to increase safety on college campuses. Finally, VAWA authorizes the provision of grants from the attorney general to local governments to improve the keeping of crime statistics, and allots money for the protection of battered immigrant women and children.

VAWA also increases criminal provisions for crimes based on gender (18 U.S.C. §§ 2261-2265) It prohibits interstate DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, making it a felony to cross state lines with the intent to injure, harass, or intimidate that person's spouse or intimate partner. It also allows "full faith and credit" for protective orders across state lines and prohibits the inter-state violation of a state court's order of protection that involves protection against credible threats of violence, repeated harassment, or bodily injury to the person or persons whom the order covers. It allows the victim in a prosecution under VAWA the opportunity to be heard regarding the danger posed by the defendant during a pretrial detention hearing. Finally, VAWA provides for restitution to the victim, regardless of any other civil or criminal penalties the law provides, holding the perpetrator liable for the full amount of the victim's losses in the areas of medical services; physical and occupational therapy; necessary transportation, temporary housing, and child-care expenses; lost income; attorneys' fees, plus any costs incurred in obtaining a civil protection order; and "any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offense."

The most controversial part of the VAWA was the provision giving gender-based victims of violence a CAUSE OF ACTION against their attackers. (42 USCA § 13981) "A person (including a person who acts under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State) who commits a crime of violence motivated by gender … shall be liable to the party injured, in an action for the recovery of compensatory and PUNITIVE DAMAGES, injunctive and declaratory relief, and such other relief as a court may deem appropriate," stated the pertinent part of the act. Congress determined that it had the right to enact this provision under the COMMERCE CLAUSE of the Constitution, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, and under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

This civil rights remedy in the VAWA created by far the most commentary of any provision of the Act. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740, 146 L. Ed. 2d 658,68 USLW 4351 (U.S.Va. 2000) struck down this provision of the Act. Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, writing the opinion for the 5–4 court majority, stated "Congress's effort in (VAWA) to provide a federal civil remedy can be sustained neither under the Commerce Clause nor … the Fourteenth Amendment … under our federal system that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not by the United States."

Despite this setback, in 2000 Congress passed a bill reauthorizing the VAWA for another five years, including more funding for domestic-violence programs and new measures against the trafficking of women and children into prostitution. This initiative ensures that despite the loss of the civil rights provision, VAWA will continue to affect the course of the nation's fight against gender-based violence.

[back] Frederick Moore Vinson

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