WLALA Amicus Brief Contributes to Landmark Human Rights Victory
by Stacy Horth-Neubert
In a ground-breaking decision in which WLALA and other public interest groups filed amicus briefs, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) determined the United States had committed human rights violations with respect to a woman and her three deceased children who were victims of domestic violence. This was the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the United States government before an international human rights tribunal. The IACHR ruling sets forth comprehensive recommendations for changes to U.S. law and policy regarding domestic violence.
The case began in 1999, when local police in Castle Rock, Colorado failed to respond to Jessica Lenahan’s repeated calls for help after her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped their three young daughters, in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Ten hours after Ms. Lenahan first called police, Gonzales drove his truck to the local police station and begun firing his gun into the station. The police returned fire, killing Gonzales. Later, police found in the truck the bodies of Ms. Lenahan’s three daughters, each of whom had been shot dead. Local authorities failed to conduct a proper investigation, resulting in questions about the time and place of the girls’ death, questions which remain unanswered to this day.
Ms. Lenahan challenged the police failures all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. In 2005, the Supreme Court held that Ms. Lenahan (then Gonzales) had no constitutional right to police protection, and that the failure of the police to enforce Lenahan’s domestic violence restraining order was not unconstitutional. Ms. Lenahan then filed a petition with the IACHR, alleging violations of international human rights.
Appellate lawyer and longtime WLALA member M.C. Sungaila, who was WLALA's Amicus Briefs chair at the time, filed two amicus briefs on behalf of WLALA, the World Organization for Human Rights USA, Legal Momentum, and other groups. Following the decision in the Supreme Court case, Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, lead counsel for the petitioner and now director of the University of Miami Law School Human Rights Clinic, invited Sungaila to present an amicus brief in the IACHR proceeding. Sungaila took the lead in drafting a comprehensive 60-page brief and, alongside co-counsel at Legal Momentum, galvanized a group of supporting amici, including WLALA. Sungaila attended the IACHR's merits hearing in October 2008 in Washington, DC, and submitted an equally voluminous supplemental merits brief on behalf of a greatly expanded group of amici, including WLALA, to the Commission as well.
WLALA applauds M.C. for her longtime commitment to WLALA and her incredible work on the Gonzales matter
Stacy Horth-Neubert is counsel in Skadden’s Litigation Group and WLALA’s Communications Officer.