HLS Hosts Women's Rights Debate

Feminist firebrand Catharine A. MacKinnon and former Solicitor General Charles Fried squared off last night to argue the constitutionality of a women's rights law presently under review by the Supreme Court.

The 1993 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created a "civil right to be free from gender motivated violence," according to MacKinnon, but Fried, who is also Carter Professor of General Jurisprudence emeritus at Harvard Law School (HLS), argued Congress exceeded its Constitutional power by passing the law.

The discussion, "Arguing the Violence Against Women Act: Two Views," played out in the vast Ames Courtroom in Austin Hall at the law school.

Early in the night, spectators knelt in the aisles and banks of cameras, microphones and recording equipment jammed the rear of the courtroom, but as the two-hour debate turned from overarching ethics to legal minutiae, departing crowds left the hall half-full of spectators fanning themselves with legal briefs.

The constitutional question pivots on a civil right provision in VAWA that allows civil damages to be awarded to victims of crimes "committed because of gender or on the basis of gender, and due, at least in part, to an animus based on the victim's gender."

Critics of VAWA claim Congress has moved outside its enumerated constitutional powers and legislated on a state issue: battery.

MacKinnon facetiously broke her argument into two sections: "Part One: Why I am Right" and "Part Two: Why Charles is Wrong."

She then argued that making the law was a Congressional power within the commerce clause of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment.

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