Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States of America

Jessica Lenahan Wins Landmark Case Before Inter-American Commission On Human Rights

The Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, and the American Civil Liberties Union represented Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States of America, a landmark case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In 1999, Lenahan's daughters were abducted by her estranged husband and killed after the Castle Rock, Colorado police repeatedly refused to enforce her domestic violence restraining order against him. Lenahan brought Fourteenth Amendment due process claims against Castle Rock. In 2005, in Town of Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales, the Supreme Court found that the police had no constitutional duty to enforce her restraining order, thereby leaving her without a remedy.

Lenahan subsequently filed a complaint against the United States before the Inter-American Commission, claiming human rights violations by the local police for failing to protect her and her children, and human rights violations by the U.S. courts, which failed to provide her with a remedy.

The case before Commission challenged the core principle of US law (embodied in DeShaney v. Winnebago County) that government generally has no duty to protect individuals from private acts of violence. Ms. Lenahan insisted that the Commission must hold the United States to well-established international standards on state responsibility to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish human rights violations and protect and compensate victims. Eight amicus briefs were submitted in support of Ms. 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.

On August 17, 2011, the Commission issued its landmark decision, finding the United States responsible for human rights violations suffered by Lenahan and recommended changes to U.S. domestic violence law and policy. Welcoming the Commission's August 17 decision, Jessica stated, "I have waited 12 years for justice, knowing in my heart that police inaction led to the tragic and untimely deaths of my three young daughters. Today's decision tells the world that the government violated my human rights by failing to protect me and my children from domestic violence."

The Gonzales decision offers advocates the opportunity to contrast existing U.S. law and policy in the civil rights arena with international human rights principles. By framing domestic violence as a human rights violation, the case challenges advocates and policymakers to re-think the current approach to domestic violence in the U.S., and asks whether fundamental rights are being respected, protected, and fulfilled. The decision holds the potential to influence domestic violence advocacy in the United States, and more broadly, to help bring human rights home to the U.S.

More information on the case can be found at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic website, the ACLU case webpage and the Amnesty International website.

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