The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal law provides no guarantee of a specific police response to domestic violence complaints, even when a restraining order has been issued against a potential perpetrator.
The case, a victory for cities and states that feared costly lawsuits, stemmed from allegations by a woman in Colorado that police failed to make a serious effort to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband, who then killed her three daughters before being fatally shot by police.
The woman, Jessica Gonzales, sued the town of Castle Rock, Colo., saying that police there violated the due-process clause of the Constitution's 14th Amendment by putting her off when she repeatedly phoned for help before the killings in June 1999.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 7 to 2 majority, said that in order for her to prevail and possibly collect damages, Gonzales would have had to show that she had been denied a benefit guaranteed by state law, such as a welfare or employment benefit. Enforcement of the order, he said, would have to be a "protected entitlement."
But "Colorado law has not created a personal entitlement to enforcement of restraining orders," he said. Indeed, "it does not appear that state law truly made such enforcement mandatory" but rather gave police a considerable level of discretion in such matters.
The ruling reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
The case, Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, No. 04-278, was closely watched both by cities and states and by organizations dedicated to increasing protection against domestic violence.
Fernando Laguarda, who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and 53 allied groups, said it was not their contention that police were somehow required to take specific preventive actions in domestic violence situations.
"It's not about being protected. Nobody is asking for miracles. She was asking for police to take her calls seriously, which is what procedural due process -- fairness -- is all about," he said.
Instead, Gonzales alleged, the police kept putting her off when she called them fearing that her estranged husband was a threat to the children, telling her to call back later rather than taking any action or even telling her there was nothing they could do.
Thomas S. Rice, representing Castle Rock in the case, said the decision "preserves the principle of law enforcement discretion." The lower court's holding would have "put the police in an impossible situation," he said. "These guys are called upon to make judgment calls. They would have been second-guessed every time they didn't enforce an order the way someone wanted."
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, issued a dissenting opinion. They argued that the majority overreached by deciding the state-law issue in the case -- the existence, or not, of a mandate for enforcement.
The dissent said that judgment belonged to a "more qualified" court, the district court or the appeals court, which are closer to the state involved and traditionally consider the meaning of state laws within their jurisdictions.
"There was a time when our tradition of judicial restraint would have led this Court to defer to the judgment of more qualified tribunals in seeking the correct answer" to a difficult question of Colorado law, Stevens wrote.
Laguarda noted that while he was disappointed with yesterday's decision, he was hopeful that Congress as well as the states would keep pressing forward in providing further money and protections for potential victims of domestic violence, including enhanced training for police on how to handle situations such as Gonzales's.