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Court Clears Way for Va. Rape Trial

December 23, 1997

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ A federal appeals panel overturned a lower court Tuesday and reinstated the first lawsuit filed under the federal Violence Against Women Act.

The divided ruling by three members of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the case of Christy Brzonkala, a former Virginia Tech student who says two football players raped her.

``It looks as if we are on our way back to have a trial,″ said Eileen Wagner, Brzonkala’s lawyer. ``What this means for us is a vindication of sorts. She ought to have her day in court.″

Two judges supported the constitutionality of the law that allows people to sue for gender-based crimes in federal court. Judge Michael Luttig dissented, agreeing with a lower court that Congress overstepped its authority in creating the 1994 law.

State Attorney General Richard Cullen said he may ask the full appeals court to review the decision.

Brzonkala was unavailable for comment, said her mother, Mary Ellen Brzonkala, who added that her daughter’s reaction to the decision was ``tears of relief.″

National Organization for Women lawyer Julie Goldscheid said it was the first federal appeals court ruling on the law’s constitutionality. Five lower courts upheld it previously.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser of Roanoke last year ruled that Congress exceeded its authority in passing the civil rights provision of the law and threw out Brzonkala’s lawsuit.

Virginia Tech’s attorney, Kay Heidreder, was out of her office and unavailable for comment and school spokesman Dave Nutter did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Ms. Goldscheid argued before the appeals court on Brzonkala’s behalf that Congress passed the law under its authority to protect national commerce.

Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Kenneth Hall agreed, citing congressional reports that found such violence costs employers billions annually because of absenteeism.

The panel also ruled Brzonkala could pursue a claim the school created a ``hostile environment″ in violation of a federal law that bars gender discrimination at public universities.

Brzonkala claims the school failed to adequately punish the players and gave her too little help.

She withdrew from Virginia Tech after the alleged assault and has suffered severe depression, Ms. Wagner said, and is now enrolled at George Mason University.

Brzonkala claims James Crawford and Antonio Morrison raped her in her dorm in 1994, a few months after the act became law. She did not report the incident for several months, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

In her lawsuit, Brzonkala _ who has asked that her name be used in articles about the case _ is seeking unspecified damages from Morrison, Crawford and Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech’s disciplinary board cleared Crawford of all charges. He was later suspended from the football team after being arrested in another alleged sexual assault.

The school cited Morrison for violating its ``abusive conduct″ policy. He was suspended, but later was allowed to return to school and play football in 1995.

``The fact that Ms. Brzonkala can keep these bogus claims alive through the federal Violence Against Woman Act demonstrates how pernicious it is to allow Congress to create quasi-criminal statutes for favored constituencies,″ said Michael McDonald, president of the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which represents Morrison.

Andrew Williams, a staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, said one other sexual assault lawsuit filed under the law is pending in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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