Jessica Gonzales v. United States of America
Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union represent Jessica Lenahan, formerly Gonzales, in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States of America. Lenahan, whose daughters were abducted by her estranged husband in 1999 and killed after the police repeatedly refused to enforce her domestic violence restraining order against him, went before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on March 2, 2007, after all domestic avenues of justice were closed to her.
In August 2011, the Inter-American Commission issued a landmark decision which found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children. Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. the United States is the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the U.S. before an international body. The IACHR ruling sets forth comprehensive recommendations for changes to U.S. law and policy pertaining to domestic violence.
The Commission's decision was issued after Ms. Lenahan exhausted her domestic remedies. Her lawsuit against the Castle Rock Police Department and individual officers ended in June 2005 when the United States Supreme Court found that Ms. Lenahan had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. After the Inter-American Commission issued an admissibility decision in 2007, in favor of Ms. Lenahan, the case entered the merits phase, which included briefing and hearings.
In 2008, the Commission held a merits hearing to decide whether the U.S and the State of Colorado violated the human rights of Ms. Lenahan and her children, specifically the rights to life, nondiscrimination, family life/unity, due process, petition the government, and the rights of domestic violence victims and their children to special protections. Two pivotal issues in the case were the affirmative obligations of law enforcement to respond to domestic violence and protect victims, and the United States’ responsibility to provide a remedy when those obligations are not fulfilled. Amicus briefs in support of Jessica Lenahan were filed on behalf of more than 70 individuals and organizations. Professor Jeffrey Fagan submitted an expert report regarding the standards that govern police responses to domestic violence in the U.S. and gave testimony at the hearing. At the hearing, Jessica Lenahan provided her own statement as well. Ms. Lenahan’s lawyers, Caroline Bettinger-Lopez (formerly of the Human Rights Institute), Steven Watt (ACLU Human Rights Program), and Lenora Lapidus (ACLU Women's Rights Project) represented Ms. Lenahan at the hearing. The United States was represented by Kevin Baumert from the State Department, as well as Jennifer Kaplan from the DOJ Office for Violence Against Women and Eric Zipporin, the Town of Castle Rock Town Attorney.
Between the hearing in 2008 and the Commission's 2011 decision in the case, co-counsel and advocates from across the country continued to meet to strategize on ways to use a positive decision frmo the Commission as a springboard for strengthening domestic policy and practice related to gender-based violence. Efforts to implement the decision are ongoing.
More information on the case can be found below and on the ACLU's case webpage.
For More Information on the Case
Case Documents & Amicus Support
Media & Scholarship
Ongoing Local Efforts to Address Domestic Violence as a Human Right
Since 2011, a number of local jurisdictions have invoked the Commission's decision in the Lenahan case as a basis for declaring freedom from domestic violence as a human right. While they vary in scope and content, these resolutions highlight both the local and international aspects of domestic violence. Efforts are underway to leverage these resolutions into changes in law and policy in several jurisdictions.
The Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Institute are tracking these resolutions.
More on HRI's state and local work