As the ACLU entered the 21st century, its focus on protecting women’s rights expanded further into addressing the rights of low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women and using international human rights strategies in its efforts to do so. Ongoing struggles include ensuring equal economic and educational opportunities, ending gender-based violence, and addressing the harms to women and girls in the criminal justice system.
In one heartbreaking case, the ACLU came to the aid of Jessica Gonzales in a lawsuit filed in June 2000 against Colorado police for refusing to enforce a domestic violence restraining order against her ex-husband, who kidnapped and murdered their three young daughters. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project coordinated several friend-of-the-court briefs on Gonzales’ behalf from a wide range of domestic violence, law enforcement, and victim’s rights groups. They, along with the ACLU, argued that an individual’s constitutional right to due process is violated if a police department fails to enforce an order of protection without meaningful consideration or explanation. The groups also asserted that such orders are meaningless if a woman cannot count on police protection.
Despite this massive outpouring of support, the Supreme Court ruled against Gonzales in 2005, holding that the Constitution does not recognize an entitlement by domestic violence victims to enforcement of their protective orders.
In most cases, an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court would be viewed as the final step in a legal challenge. However, Jessica Gonzales and her ACLU attorneys were not willing to accept defeat. Instead, they decided to pursue international human rights strategies to raise the visibility of this problem and to force the United States to address issues of violence against women and police accountability.
Six months after the Supreme Court ruling, the ACLU filed a petition on Gonzales’ behalf before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an entity authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which include the United States.
The case was the first individual complaint against the United States brought before an international human rights body for violating the rights of domestic violence victims. The ACLU petition sought a ruling that the United States had violated Gonzales’ rights by failing to exercise due diligence to prevent the violence. The petition also sought provision of a remedy, compensation for Gonzales, and adoption by the United States of measures that would deter similar abuses in the future.
In a March 2007 preliminary ruling, the IAHCR found that the United States is obligated under human rights law to protect victims of domestic violence and that the case could proceed. The ACLU presented testimony at a subsequent hearing and a final decision is pending. ACLU advocacy on behalf of Jessica Gonzales illustrates the way in which international human rights mechanisms can be employed to influence U.S. policy and to draw attention to the lack of accountability by law enforcement for violence against women.
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» Jessica Gonzales v. U.S.A.
» Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Holds U.S. Responsible for Protecting Domestic Violence Victims
» Witness: Jessica Gonzales – Victim of Police Negligence
» Video: Jessica Gonzales’ Testimony Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
ACLU History: Protecting Women's Equality
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