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Court Will Rule on Town's Liability in Family Violence

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A02

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will decide whether victims of domestic violence have a constitutional right to sue local governments that fail to protect them from abusers.

Without comment or recorded dissent, the court said it would hear an appeal from a Colorado town accused of refusing to enforce a restraining order against a violent father who eventually killed his three children.

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The town, Castle Rock, seeks to overturn a federal appeals court ruling that found it liable because it had not given the children's mother adequate notice of its non-enforcement or a chance to plead her case.

Castle Rock, supported by the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the National League of Cities, contends the Supreme Court must overturn that ruling to prevent a "potentially devastating" flood of lawsuits that "could bankrupt municipal governments . . . given the inevitability of less-than-perfect enforcement."

Attorneys for the mother had urged the court to leave the ruling alone, saying that it "reflect[ed] a very fact-specific issue that is unlikely to recur frequently."

The case is a sequel to one of the most emotion-laden cases in recent Supreme Court history, 1989's DeShaney v. Winnebago County, in which the justices ruled, 6 to 3, that a brain-damaged Wisconsin boy, Joshua DeShaney, and his mother could not sue local authorities who knew that the boy was being beaten by his father but did not stop the beatings.

In an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said the constitutional guarantee of due process of law did not "require the State to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors."

The ruling prompted the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun to exclaim in dissent: "Poor Joshua!"

In the case the court agreed to hear yesterday, Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales, No. 04-278, Jessica Gonzales is suing Castle Rock for allegedly failing to enforce a restraining order that barred her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, from visiting their three children except at specified times.

Jessica Gonzales alleges that, when Simon Gonzales abducted the three children from her front yard, she repeatedly asked the police to bring the children back, but they would not act. Simon Gonzales eventually killed the children. He was killed in a gunfight with officers.

Earlier this year, the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, sitting as a full 11-member panel, ruled that Jessica Gonzales can press a constitutional claim against Castle Rock in federal court.

In a 6 to 5 ruling, the appeals court acknowledged that the Supreme Court's ruling in DeShaney bars any claim based on a right to be protected by local authorities. But the 10th Circuit said the restraining order against her husband gave Jessica Gonzales a strong enough expectation of government protection that she had a due-process right at least to be told in advance if the town was not going to enforce it.

The case will be argued in March. A decision is expected by July.


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