Published: April, 2014| Rose Dominguez, Edited by Stephanie Avalon

The University Of Miami School Of Law launched The Human Rights Clinic in January 2011. This clinic exposes students to the practice of law in the international and cross-cultural context of human rights litigation and advocacy at the local, national, and international levels.

In the classroom, students critically engage with human rights law and contemporary social problems while honing their lawyering and advocacy skills. Outside the classroom, students gain hands-on experience working on cutting-edge human rights projects and cases before the United Nations, the Inter-American human rights system, U.S. courts, and in other fora.

The Clinic’s Director is Professor Caroline Bettinger-Lopez and its Practitioner-in-Residence is Professor Kelleen Corrigan. Highlights of the Human Rights Clinic’s work this academic year can be found here. The Clinic represents Jessica Lenahan, the petitioner in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States—a groundbreaking decision from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) finding the U.S. in violation of its human rights obligations in the context of domestic violence.

The Clinic and co-counsel on the case, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, produced this video featuring Jessica and her story:

Jessica had obtained an Order for Protection from a court in Castle Rock, Colorado in 1999 against her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales. In violation of that order, Simon abducted their three daughters. When Jessica contacted the police they not only failed to respond to her calls, but they insisted that her children were safe with their father. Simon was shot and killed when he opened fire on police after driving his truck to the police station. Jessica’s daughters were found dead in the truck. To this day, it is still not known whether they were killed by their father earlier that evening, or whether they were killed in the crossfire with the police.

Jessica filed a lawsuit against the Castle Rock police for failing to enforce her Order for Protection. The language on Jessica’s Order for Protection made clear that police were obligated to enforce her restraining order. The case reached the U. S. Supreme Court where Jessica lost in a 7-2 opinion. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia said “We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory.”

For most people, the defeat at the Supreme Court would be the end of the story. But Jessica took her case further, claiming that her human right to protection from domestic violence was violated. Hers was the first case brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the U.S. before an international human rights tribunal, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who found that the United States violated the human rights of Jessica and her children. The decision underscores that the U.S. is failing in its legal obligation to protect women and girls from domestic violence. Despite a lack of enforcement, there is still great significance in bringing a domestic violence case before an international human rights body. For example, it affords an opportunity for individual empowerment, galvanizes coalitions, and serves to exert political pressure.

The Clinic is working to reinforce and implement the decision in numerous ways, including: advocacy before the U.S. Department of Justice concerning gender-biased policing, collaboration with local organizations on anti-domestic violence initiatives, local resolutions declaring freedom from domestic violence a human right, and continued advocacy before the IACHR, the United Nations, and in the criminal justice system.

For more information, please contact: Rose Dominguez at rdominguez@law.miami.edu.