Civil rights and gender violence redux

A recent post reminds readers that the 2000 decision in U.S. v. Morrison, in which the Supreme Court struck the 1994 civil rights remedy enacted as part of the first Violence Against Women Act, eliminated a valuable remedy that held promise for survivors of gender violence.  The post is correct that the civil rights remedy might have provided a remedy for the survivor in a recent rape case out of Maryville, Missouri, in which the prosecutors dropped charges.  Indeed, while the civil rights remedy was in effect, it afforded relief for numerous survivors, in cases involving both domestic violence and sexual assault.  A number of states laws still afford similar relief, some through laws providing civil remedies for survivors of gender violence that were enacted in response to the Morrison decision.  These laws should be used whenever possible to provide compensation to survivors and to help shift enduring notions about “legitimate” rape, ideas that victims ask for abuse and lie about complaints, and other antiquated and discredited but nevertheless enduring stereotypes.

The loss of the civil rights remedy in Morrison need not mean the loss of civil rights advocacy for survivors of gender violence.  Instead, we might think expansively about how to use existing remedies and how to develop new arguments and strategies.  For example, recent efforts leverage civil rights laws to challenge law enforcement’s under-responsiveness as well as over-responsiveness to gender violence claims.

Civil rights campaigns should be conceived broadly; although the 1994 civil rights remedy took the form of a private right of action, civil rights strategies can address a range of inequities.  The case of Marissa Alexander, comes to mind.  She was convicted in Florida of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, for firing what she described as a warning shot intended to make her husband, who had a documented history of violence, stop his threats and abuse.  In stark contrast to George Zimmerman, she was not afforded immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.  The case was appealed, and the appellate court ordered a retrial, based on its conclusion that the trial court’s jury instructions on self-defense were erroneous (the court rejected her arguments that she should receive immunity under the “stand your ground” law).  Advocates are calling on the prosecution, to drop the charges entirely.

Civil rights violations take a range of forms and require a range of responses.  A combination of legal advocacy and grassroots organizing, even in the face of setbacks, holds the potential to advance the promise the 1994 civil rights remedy held, and to promote justice for survivors.

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7 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    I’m unclear what your complaint is. The relevant acts are still illegal, the Court simply took note of the fact that they were not civil rights violations, unless you’re going to trivially define every violation of somebody’s rights as a civil rights violation.

    Must everything be treated as a civil rights violation? Just illegal isn’t good enough?

  2. Joe says:

    I don’t understand the first comment.

    When you violate someone’s rights, that is the very definition of a violation of their “civil” rights — it is by definition a type of civil rights violation.

    Is the comment in reference to Morrison? The Court held that specific law was not an appropriate federal remedy given the limits of the Commerce Clause and the 14A. I’m inclined to support the former more than the latter, especially in the context of a claim at a state run university.

    It is somewhat strange Brett opposes the civil rights violation approach given his libertarian views. Making it a civil wrong provides a means for civil relief, which can be handled by personal litigation, not government action directly. Libertarians often favor that approach.

  3. Joe says:

    ETA: It might be that the first comment is using the terms in a specific way. Thus my confusion.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by subsequent acts of Congress, including civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination”

    Not having somebody beat on you is a “right”.

    Freedom of speech is a civil right. “Civil” rights are your rights with regards to the government, not other individuals. Voting, trial by jury, that sort of thing.

  5. Joe says:

    Thanks. The second hit on Google for “civil rights” refers me to Cornell University Law School’s definition:

    “A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury.”

    If I punch someone in the nose, they have a right to sue me for damages for violating their “civil right” and a “civil” jury (in federal cases, the 7th Amendment applies) might determine my case, including damages.

    Assault is also illegal, but it is “not enough.”

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    You’re still collapsing the category of “rights” into “civil rights”, which are just a subset of “rights”.

  7. prometheefeu says:

    What’s the connection with “stand your ground”? According to the account in question, Marissa Alexander was in a garage with her alleged attacker between her and the only standing door. I don’t see how SYG is relevant. Can you say a bit more about what happened at trial that caused this outcome? As I understand it, it would have been up to the prosecutor to prove she did not act in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. What evidence was presented that you found unpersuasive?