5 Supreme Court Sexual Assault Cases That You Should Know About
Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination has been derailed, at least temporarily, by two accusations of sexual misconduct that he has repeatedly denied. But those who believe Kavanaugh's accusers fear his decisions would chip away at women's bodily autonomy — as well as all sexual assault survivors' rights — if he's confirmed to the bench. While the high court focuses on questions surrounding the law — not whether or not a specific person is guilty of a crime — the Supreme Court has ruled on cases involving sexual assault in the past.
The Supreme Court can hear almost any case on appeal "that involves a point of constitutional and/or federal law," according to the United States Courts' website. Because states dictate sexual assault laws within their own borders, an assault case would have to raise questions about the constitutionality of a specific state law in order to make it to the Supreme Court. Even then, a majority of justices must vote to accept a case.
Because of this standard, most sexual assault cases heard by the nation's top justices have focused on the constitutionality of certain court practices or who can be liable in specific types of sexual assault cases. And these five precedents impact how lower courts rule on sexual assault cases across the country.
Ohio v. Clark
In 2015, the Supreme Court heard a case involving a 3-year-old boy who told his daycare teacher that he was physically abused by his mother’s boyfriend. The boy was deemed too young to testify in court, but a judge allowed his comment identifying the boyfriend to his teacher to be used at trial. After the boyfriend was found guilty of child abuse, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the boy's statement wasn't admissible in court because the defendant had a constitutional right to cross-examine a witness testifying against him at trial.
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Ohio decision and reinstated the conviction, ruling that the boy's comment to his teacher could be used in the trial. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion that the defendant's constitutional rights would not be violated by admitting the boy's testimony "because the statements were not made with the primary purpose of creating evidence" for the prosecution.
Although Ohio v. Clark didn't specifically involve sexual abuse, the ruling effectively made it easier for prosecutors to try abuse cases without forcing young children to testify against their alleged abuser, as The Wall Street Journal noted at the time.
Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States
The same year, Elonis v. United States brought the issue of online harassment and threats of sexual assault to the Supreme Court. Anthony Elonis was convicted for posting on Facebook what his estranged wife perceived as threats about raping and murdering her, though he claimed the posts were artistic expressions protected by the Constitution.
The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which overturned Elonis’ conviction because the Court of Appeals's jury instructions didn't require "proof of recklessness" — meaning the jury didn't evaluate whether there was sufficient proof that Elonis actually intended to threaten his wife with sexual assault.
"A subjective standard would allow offenders to avoid accountability by simply claiming they meant no harm as Elonis contends in this case," The National Center for Victims of Crime said in a 2014 press release on the case. "Victims experience harm regardless of the defendant’s intent."
Millbrook v. United States
A case reached the high court in 2013 involving a federal prisoner who sued the United States government for assault and battery. The inmate alleged that he was sexually assaulted by government-employed prison guards, a claim the prison’s internal investigation found to be unsubstantiated, according to The New York Times. The inmate's attorneys argued that the Federal Tort Claims Act — which allows individuals to sue the federal government for the actions of government employees who commit negligent or wrongful acts while acting within the scope of their official duties — included prison guards sexually assaulting inmates.
The Supreme Court agreed, making it possible for survivors to sue the government for assaults committed by federal law enforcement officials, even if the assaults occur outside of a search, seizure, or arrest.
Doyle Randall Paroline v. United States
A survivor who was sexually abused in order to produce child pornography learned years later that images of the abuse were being trafficked online. Doyle Randall Paroline pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing hundreds of images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, but his attorneys argued that Paroline didn't owe any money to the survivor seeking restitution because he wasn't her abuser and didn't take the pictures.
"It’s like I am being abused over, and over, and over again," the survivor wrote in a 2008 victim impact statement obtained by The New York Times about what it felt like to know people still have images of her as a child.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Paroline should be held accountable for the impact his actions had on the survivor, including paying restitution. The decision made it easier for survivors of child abuse and pornography to get financial restitution from anyone found guilty of possessing the images.
Kennedy v. Louisiana
The 2008 Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Louisiana was essentially a followup to a 1977 ruling that mandated that the death penalty was too harsh a punishment for the rape of an adult woman. But when Patrick Kennedy was found guilty of raping a minor in 2003, Louisiana sought the death penalty.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court prohibited states from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child "where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim's death." The ruling stated that such a punishment would violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.
While all of these cases are already in the past, they highlight what type of sexual assault cases Kavanaugh could play a role in deciding if he reaches the Supreme Court bench.