Time to take sexual assault to federal court

State criminal-justice systems had failed these women: Police threw out rape kits, juries refused to believe women who wore short skirts and judges displayed bias. Because state criminal-justice systems had failed, I proposed a federal civil rights remedy as a supplement to state remedies.

I wanted to empower women to stand up for themselves no matter where they lived. Congress needed to open the elite federal courts and give women the control they deserved to get their truth heard. When police and prosecutors fell down on the job, a woman and her lawyer could step in; she could sue in federal as well as state court for damages for her injuries or to vindicate her name. Attorneys had incentives to bring such cases, because if the woman won, they could recover the costs of their time and the suit.

In 1994, Congress passed that civil rights remedy. But six years later, the Supreme Court killed it. In a 5-to-4 vote, the court struck down the civil rights remedy on the basis of the strange argument that adding a federal option usurped the role of the states. Then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the opinion, had lobbied against the law in Congress, demeaned it in speeches as a pointless “symbolic” effort, and implied that women would use the new law to extort money in divorces. Think about that: The idea was that women would make up stories about being violated to fatten their bank accounts.

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