What Killed the Violence Against Women Act’s Civil Rights Remedy Before the Supreme Court Did?

What makes for effective civil rights legislation? This Note answers that question by exploring the obscured history of the Violence Against Women Act’s (VAWA) civil rights remedy. Most scholarship on the subject focuses entirely on United States v. Morrison, the Supreme Court decision that invalidated the legislation on Commerce Clause grounds. This Note challenges that narrative and argues that Morrison was only one of many setbacks the civil rights remedy suffered in its short history. The civil rights remedy faced a multitude of obstacles that prevented it from achieving its goal of reducing rates of violence against women by providing a sophisticated forum for victims of gender violence to seek redress and making such violence a civil rights issue. The civil rights remedy’s origins were radical and based on aspirational, but unrealistic, feminist jurisprudence.

Additionally, the rhetoric surrounding the legislation largely focused on its symbolic, rather than practical, function. The few lawyers who did bring VAWA claims were not benefited by a broad-based litigation campaign because women’s organizations did not lead such a charge. The lawyers then faced formidable opponents who quickly challenged the statute’s constitutionality. Lastly, both the lower federal courts and the press did not bolster support for the remedy. On the fiftieth anniversary of the archetypal civil rights legislation of the twentieth century, Title VII, and the twentieth anniversary of the VAWA, this Note calls for a nuanced discussion of how civil rights legislation can be designed, and used, to provoke meaningful and effective change.