Jessica Gonzales v. United States of America
The Human Rights Clinic of Columbia Law School and the American Civil Liberties Union represent Jessica Lenahan, formerly Gonzales, in Jessica Gonzales v. United States of America. Gonzales, 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 also sets forth comprehensive recommendations for changes to U.S.law and policy pertaining to domestic violence.
Previously, Ms.Lenahan brought a lawsuit against the Castle Rock Police Department and individual officers, but in June 2005, the Supreme Court found that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights returned an admissibility decision on October 5, 2007, in favor of Ms. Lenahan, affirming her assertion that she had exhausted all domestic avenues in her search for justice.
The admissibility phase of this case was the first of a two phase process. In the second phase, the merits phase, the commission decided whether the U.S and the State of Colorado violated the human rights of Jessica Gonzales 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. The merits brief was filed on March 24, 2008.
In September 2008, the Inter-American Commission approved HRI's request for a merits hearing. The merits hearing in Jessica Gonzales v United States took place before the Inter-American Commission on Oct. 22, 2008. The case involves 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. Prior to the hearing, eight amicus briefs were submitted in support of Jessica Lenahan by over 70 individuals and organizations, and Professor Jeffrey Fagan submitted an expert report about the appropriate standards for police response to domestic violence in the U.S. At the hearing, Jessica Lenahan issued a victim’s statement. Professor Jeffrey Fagan from Columbia Law School gave expert testimony. Ms. Lenahan’s lawyers, Caroline Bettinger-Lopez (Columbia HRI), Steven Watt (ACLU HRP), and Lenora Lapidus (ACLU WRP) 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.
The commissioners asked insightful and provocative questions about the state’s due diligence obligation to protect victims of domestic violence and their children, about the factual record, and about the U.S. legal and programmatic response to domestic violence, among other issues.
The day after the hearing, domestic violence and human rights advocates met to discuss how to use the Gonzales case—assuming a positive decision—as a springboard for future advocacy.
More information on the case can be found below and on the ACLU's case webpage.
HRI hopes that the case will establish Inter-American jurisprudence on State obligations to protect domestic violence victims and children and articulate clear governmental due diligence standards with respect to non-state actors.
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 has tracked these resolutions, but has not played a role in drafting them.
More on HRI's state and local work
For More Information on the Case
Case Documents & Amicus Support
Media & Scholarship