July 11, 2005

Violence Against Women

I was catching up on Los Angeles Times' op-eds from the past week—when will Kinsley stop screwing around with wikitorials and give us RSS feeds?—and came across this one by Sarah Buel discussing one of the final-day Supreme Court decisions that didn't get much attention: Castle Rock v. Gonzales. The backstory: Jessica Gonzales had put a restraining order out on her estranged husband; one night he whisked her three kids away from her; she asked the Castle Rock, CO, police to enforce the restraining order and retrieve her kids; they dithered and then said no, instead going home to dinner. Well, the three kids end up dead in the trunk of a car, Gonzales is beyond livid, and sues.

Now the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Gonzales didn't have a right to have the order enforced under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment—that is, the Castle Rock PD wasn't violating her property rights by using their discretion and failing to respond. Now on one level, it would be awfully odd if a property interest was created whenever a restraining order was issued. I'm not sure. Meanwhile, though, Antonin Scalia's majority opinion says: "A well established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes." Okay, that's also somewhat fair, I think. But Colorado had also previously passed a law specifically requiring police departments to "use every reasonable means to" enforce restraining orders, precisely because the departments had been so lax on this front. The whole point of the law was to take away their discretion. Perhaps I'm very wrong about this, but it seems like there's no possible way the Colorado legislature could've written a law to take away police "discretion" on this issue. Is that really true?

Anyway, this also reminds me that I should plug the cover story of the latest Mother Jones: a profile of Patricia Prickett, who has spent years trying to get law enforcement agencies to respond to domestic violence. Needless to say, it's like pulling teeth. The big hurdle on this issue, of course, is the Violence Against Women Act, which comes up for renewal this fall. The lesser-known hurdle, though, is that police departments themselves are exceedingly reluctant to focus on domestic violence, despite the fact that a coordinated response system can cut the relevant homicides and assaults down by half. (For a sense of the scale: 5.3 million women abused per year; 555,000 serious injuries; 1200 killed.) Naturally.

But as with Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the law can be pretty damn useless here. Most judges don't even know about the Violence Against Women Act, and can be easily swayed by "charming" batterers. Police officers, meanwhile, will sometimes actively dissuade victims from prosecuting, which they are certainly not supposed to do. As always, it's beyond fucked. This isn't something Congress can solve—completely—from on high. Without people like Prickett physically yanking people by the hair, hard, and hurling them in the right direction, nothing ever happens. Anyway, it's a good piece, so give it a look.
-- Brad Plumer 11:51 PM || ||