WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday questioned whether police can be sued for how they enforced a restraining order against a father who killed his three young daughters, a case that could redefine how police respond to domestic abuse.
A lawyer for Jessica Gonzales, the dead girls' mother, asked the justices to declare that she had a 14th Amendment right to police enforcement of the court order against her estranged husband.
''A public high school student threatened with suspension received more due process" than Gonzales did, her lawyer told the court.
The justices are caught between the horror of the killings in Castle Rock, Colo., and imposing a legal burden they suggested might make it impossible for police departments to function properly.
In the crush of police department business when there are ''three other calls waiting," authorities would be required to spread already thin resources even further, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said.
''We are not asking for the police department to drop everything," Brian Reichel, Gonzales's attorney, replied.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the police have an obligation to enforce restraining orders.
''They still have a great deal of discretion" in deciding how to do so, said John Eastman, an attorney representing the town of Castle Rock.
Does that include ''the discretion to do nothing?" Ginsburg asked.
Gonzales reported her three daughters missing on June 22, 1999, telling police she had a restraining order against her ex-husband. The order allowed the husband to pick up the girls for a midweek dinner, if he made arrangements first with his wife. He didn't on June 22.
When Gonzales reached him on his cellphone, he said he was with the girls at an amusement park in nearby Denver, which she reported to police. They told her to call back if the girls weren't home by 10 p.m.
Police twice went to the ex-husband's apartment, kept an eye out for his truck, and called his cellphone and home phone. Castle Rock police did not go to the amusement park in Denver to hunt for her three children, and the Castle Rock police did not contact Denver police.
At 3:20 the next morning, Gonzales's ex-husband drove to the police station and opened fire on police. He died in the gun battle that ensued. Police found the bodies of the three girls in his truck. He had killed his daughters after the trip to the amusement park.
Embracing Gonzales's argument would create a ''non-administerable system and one that is at odds with normal police discretion," Justice David Souter suggested.
The case is Castle Rock, Colo., v. Gonzales, 04-278