The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday regarding the right of domestic violence victims to sue local police departments that fail to enforce court-ordered protection orders against abusers. The asserted right stems from 1999 incident in Castle Rock, Colorado, when the local police department failed to take action in response to Jessica Gonzales’ numerous calls, notifying the department that her estranged husband had violated her protection order and abducted her three children. The police department’s failure to act resulted in the husband’s murder of the children.
Gonzales now seeks to sue the town of Castle Rock for $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. 1893, which provides a civil remedy, including damages, when a person is deprived of a constitutionally protected property interest without due process of the law.
Although the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found Castle Rock liable under the federal statute when it heard the case last year, it is unclear whether the Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion.
Women’s rights advocates present at the oral arguments expressed skepticism at a favorable outcome. The Supreme Court Justices seemed hesitant to accept the notion that a state-based “promise” to enforce protective orders could be construed as a property interest secured by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. According to Women’s eNews, the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia commented that a state’s promise to enforce protective orders “doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a property interest.”
The Court also seemed sympathetic to the argument that ensuring a property interest in a state-based protection order would place an undue burden on state and local governments and police forces. Such agencies would be forced to prioritize complaints of violations of protection orders over other emergencies and would be confronted with a host of lawsuits brought by domestic violence victims, alleging agency failure to properly respond to protection order violations.
What will happen if the Supreme Court rejects the claim that a woman has the right to see that her protective order is enforced and sue when it is not? Women’s rights advocates fear that the long-fought-for protection orders will become meaningless, as no one will be ultimately accountable for their enforcement.
The Supreme Court is expected reach a decision on the issue this summer.
High Court to Rule of Power of Protective Orders, Allison Stevens, Women’s eNews, www.womensenews.org, 22 March 2005.
Supreme Court to Weigh in on Due Process and Domestic Violence: Justices to Decide if Police are Liable, Marcia Coyle, the National Law Journal, www.law.com, 9 March 2005.