Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Gonzales Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Castle Rock, Colorado v. Jessica Gonzales in March. At issue is whether victims of domestic violence have the right to sue if their local governments fail to protect them and their children from batterers.

“This case is critically important for victims of domestic violence,” said Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler. “A positive ruling will establish that local governments will be held accountable if they fail to enforce the restraining orders that women and children depend on – sometimes for their lives.”

The Case

The case centers on a brutal crime. Jessica Gonzales sought and received a protective order in May of 1999 requiring her estranged, violent ex-husband to stay away from her and their three daughters, ages seven, nine and ten. Police failed to enforce the order, and her husband kidnapped the three girls from their yard in June of 1999.

Gonzales reported her daughters missing, pleading with local police over the course of eight hours for help – to no avail. She eventually reached her ex-husband on his cell phone, and he told her he was with the girls at a nearby amusement park. She called police to pass on the information and ask for help. She alleges they took no action, even after she called four times and went to the police station personally to seek assistance.

Simon Gonzales came to the police station some ten hours after the kidnapping, in the middle of the night. He opened fire with a handgun he had purchased that day. Police killed him and later found the three girls’ bodies in his pick-up truck; Simon had killed them while they slept.

Colorado has a mandatory arrest law that requires law enforcement to use “every reasonable means to enforce” restraining orders like the one Jessica Gonzales obtained.

Rulings/Arguments

The Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled six to five that Jessica Gonzales can sue Castle Rock for failing to enforce the restraining order. The narrow majority found that Gonzales had a case that police failed to follow proper procedures and heed her repeated calls for help. She is asking for $30 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages.

But the town appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court will decide. The Bush Administration joined the case on behalf of the City, arguing to maintain the longstanding policy that individuals cannot go to court to invoke a right to law enforcement.

The National League of Cities and International Municipal Lawyers Association are also siding with Castle Rock, warning of a flood of lawsuits that could bankrupt local governments if the appeals court ruling is allowed to stand. Several justices asked questions during oral arguments that may suggest that they share that concern.

This case may cause the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit – or reaffirm – its 1989 ruling in DeShaney vs. Winnebago County. In that case, it decided by a six to three margin that the mother of a brain-damaged Wisconsin boy could not sue her county social services agency for failing to stop the boy’s father from beating his son, even though officials knew of the abuse. That ruling, which has been widely criticized, was based on the conclusion that government is not required to protect its citizens against “private actors.”

A Lot at Stake

Several justices expressed sympathy for Jessica Gonzales, but skepticism about courts intruding on police discretion. Advocates strongly disagree.

“A negative decision from the high court … would give police everywhere a green light to ignore state mandates requiring enforcement,” wrote Attorney Joan Meier in the Washington Post. “Such a decision would encourage police to do less than they do now, drastically weakening the effectiveness of protection orders, which are a crucial legal means of protecting battered women and children. In fact, the history of profound gender inequality in the government’s treatment of wife-beating makes the problem one of core constitutional concern. No less than police brutality, this kind of passive misconduct implicates fundamental civil rights.”

“A bad ruling in the Gonzales case will send a dangerous message,” Soler agreed. “We need to strengthen the tools that can keep victims safe, not let cities that fail to protect their citizens off the hook.”

A ruling is expected this summer.

[Browse more features]