A rebuff of grandparents' rights

In a rare foray into family law, court rules that parents' decisions prevail on the issue of grandparent visitation.

The US Supreme Court has dealt a major setback to the grandparents' rights movement with a decision that makes it much harder for them to obtain court-ordered visitation with their grandchildren.

Instead, the nation's highest court ruled that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children free from undue interference from grandparents and state judges.

The decision marks the first time the high court has ruled in a case that implicates the overlapping and conflicting rights of parents, grandparents, and children. It comes at a time when traditional two-parent families are under siege with high rates of divorce and an increasing number of US children being raised in single-family households.

In essence, the ruling reaffirms that parental rights remain one of the strongest pillars of American law.

"Every grandparent in the United States will listen and wonder, 'What if this were my grandchild and I wasn't being allowed to see them?' " says Sandra Morgan Little, chairwoman of the American Bar Association's family law section. "It also shows that family relationships ... do not fit well into the judicial system."

In a 6-to-3 decision announced yesterday, the high court decided that while grandparents have important interests in participating in the upbringing of their grandchildren, the ultimate decision on whom visits with a child rests primarily with the child's parents.

"In an ideal world, parents might always seek to cultivate the bonds between grandparents and their grandchildren," writes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the majority opinion. "Needless to say, however, our world is far from perfect, and in it, the decision whether such an intergenerational relationship would be beneficial ... is for the parent to make."

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens writes: "It seems clear to me that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment leaves room for states to consider the impact on a child of possibly arbitrary parental decisions that neither serve nor are motivated by the best interests of the child."

The high court's ruling strikes down a Washington State law that empowered judges to grant visitation rights to grandparents and other third parties over a parent's objection.

The ruling does not strike down any other state grandparent visitation laws, but it will have an impact on how existing visitation laws in the other 49 states are enforced. In addition, the decision does not define the precise scope of a parent's rights in all visitation cases. Instead, the majority only struck down the Washington State law which it found to be "breathtakingly broad."

The ruling marks a significant defeat to the growing grandparents' rights movement and creates a legal roadblock to many grandparents who feel they have no other recourse but to turn to the courts to attempt to gain access to their grandchildren.

Parents' rights advocates see the ruling as a major victory, by reaffirming that parents have a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to raise their children without being second-guessed by judges or relatives.

In a broader context, the decision could help bolster the case of Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has been waging a custody dispute with relatives in Miami over whether his son, Elian, should remain in the US or return to Cuba.

The Elian case pits parents' rights advocates against those who say that the guiding criterion should be the best interest of the child.

The Miami relatives have had their case dismissed from a Miami family court, a federal, and last week, from a federal appeals court. They are considering an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

The court's decision in the Washington case suggests the court may rule that the father has a right to decide where his son will live.

That case stems from a dispute over visitation rights between the mother of two girls and the children's paternal grandparents. The grandparents, Jennifer and Gary Troxel, petitioned the court for regular court-ordered visits with the children after their son, the father of the two girls, committed suicide.

The mother, Tommie Granville, had since remarried and refused to permit what she considered to be excessive and time-consuming visitation with the grandparents.

The trial judge in the case ordered the mother to turn over her children to the grandparents one weekend a month, as well as for a week during the summer, and for four hours on each of the girls' birthdays.

An appeals court reversed the visitation order, and Washington's Supreme Court ruled that parents have a fundamental right to raise their children without outside interference. The only exception is when the court must act to prevent harm to the child.

The case points up an increasingly contentious area of family law. Much of the litigation is driven by grandparents seeking visitation after a divorce, particularly after the spouse with custody has remarried and is seeking to start a new life and a new family.

Some legal analysts say that such inner-family disputes are a sign of the increasingly litigious times in which we live. In the past, such family battles would have been resolved within the family. But today, legal analysts say, the inclination is to take a stubborn parent to court.

One potential impact of the US Supreme Court decision is that it might help rebalance power between grandparents and parents by making clear that in most cases the parents will win. That realization might encourage grandparents in future cases to seek family solutions to family problems rather enlisting the efforts of lawyers and judges.

* Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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