IN the course of a political campaign, subjects sometimes get tossed into the rhetorical ring that simply don't belong there. They're too complex to get a fair hearing, too peripheral to the real issues of the campaign, and too susceptible to demagogy. A recent example was President Bush's reported charge that his opponent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, would encourage "children to haul their parents into court."
Governor Clinton, not too suprisingly, has no such policy. The president was probably referring to some of the legal writings of Mr. Clinton's wife, Hillary Clinton. As a scholar and lawyer, Mrs. Clinton has explored at length the legal "competence" of children - whether they should, under some circumstances, be allowed to challenge their parents in court. The circumstances under which such action would most likely arise involve blatant abuse and neglect.
The issue is far from academic. This month a Florida court ruled that an 11-year-old boy had standing to sue his parents for what amounts to a "divorce." The family had a long history of instability, and the boy's father had already relinquished custody but the mother hadn't. The youth said she had neglected him, and he stated his desire to stay with a foster family.
The Florida ruling opens the way for this suit to be heard. It also moved litigation into largely uncharted territory, since courts have generally upheld the traditional rights of parents.
From the perspective of any given child faced with an abusive home environment, this seems a positive development. But disturbing questions arise in its trail. How can a child's "competence" be ascertained? In most cases, wouldn't adults, acting for or encouraging the child, really bring suit? Does such a legal trend, if that's what it is, work against family reconciliation and the already challenged authority of parents?
Hillary Clinton's explorations of the subject, as detailed by Gary Wills in a recent New York Review of Books, suggest that present doctrine should be turned on its head: The legal standing of children as individuals should be assumed, with exceptions made in such obvious cases as very young children. By contrast, such standing is now generally conferred only after the age of majority, usually 18 or 21.
The implications of such a change could be great. What about the juvenile-justice system? The gentler treatment of youthful offenders is already breaking down under political pressures to get tougher with all criminals.
It's a subject that deserves the light of informed analysis, not the heat of campaign rhetoric.