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Supreme Court supports parents against third-party visitation rights

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court gave a boost to parental rights in an opinion announced June 5.

The high court upheld in a 6-3 decision a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that two of that state’s laws allowing a wide range of third parties to seek the right to visit children despite parental objections violated the constitutional rights of parents.

In Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion for the court, she wrote one of the laws was “breathtakingly broad.” The law transgressed parents’ due-process rights “to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control” of their children, a fundamental right in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment for which the high court has “extensive precedent,” she wrote.

O’Connor cited in particular a portion of the law which said, “Any person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time.” Under the law, the “court may grant such visitation rights whenever ‘visitation may serve the best interest of the child,'” she wrote, citing the text.

“That language effectively permits any third party seeking visitation to subject any decision by a parent concerning visitation of the parent’s children to state-court review,” O’Connor wrote. The law “contains no requirement that a court accord the parent’s decision any presumption of validity or any weight whatsoever. Instead, the Washington statute places the best-interest determination solely in the hands of the judge. Should the judge disagree with the parent’s estimation of the child’s best interests, the judge’s view necessarily prevails.”

There was no indication the parent involved in the case was unfit, O’Connor wrote. As long as “a parent adequately cares for his or her children . . . , there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent’s children,” she wrote.

While the facts of the case involved grandparents seeking the right to expand visitation with the daughters of their late son, a decision in their favor could have gone beyond grandparents’ rights and seriously undermined parental rights. It would have favored not only grandparents and other relatives, but others, including former heterosexual and homosexual live-in partners with no biological connection, could have gained visitation rights against a parent’s will.

The case, Troxell v. Granville, began with Gary and Jenifer Troxel asking a court for visitation rights to two granddaughters. The Troxels’ son, Brad, the father of the girls, had committed suicide in 1993. Tommie Granville, the girls’ mother, desired to limit the amount of time her daughters spent with the Troxels.

A judge issued a visitation order on behalf of the Troxels that included one weekend per month and one week in the summer, but the Washington Court of Appeals struck it down. In 1998, the Washington Supreme Court invalidated the laws.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined O’Connor in her opinion. Associate Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas agreed with the court’s judgment but wrote separate concurring opinions explaining their reasoning. Thomas went even further than O’Connor in supporting parental rights, writing the state “lacks even a legitimate governmental interest — to say nothing of a compelling one — in second-guessing a fit parent’s decision regarding visitation with third parties.”

Shannon Royce, legislative counsel for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “I am pleased with the result of the case, but I wish the court had gone farther.

“I agree with Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion that the plurality opinion rightfully affirms the constitutional right of parents in the upbringing of their children, but I also agree with his disappointment that the court did not articulate the appropriate standard of review, which is strict scrutiny,” she said.

Strict scrutiny is the highest standard in the United States legal system, requiring the government to show it has a “compelling interest” and is using the least restrictive means to limit a constitutional right.

Other religious liberty and pro-family organizations hailed the decision.

“This decision clarifies and re-establishes parents as the authority in their child’s life with a God-given duty and right to oversee [his] care and custody. . . . the court has chosen to affirm this and defend parents as the building block of the family,” said Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president for public policy, in a written statement.

Associate Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy each wrote dissenting opinions. Stevens wrote, “The almost infinite variety of family relationships that pervade our ever-changing society strongly counsel against the creation by this court of a constitutional rule that treats a biological parent’s liberty interest in the care and supervision of her child as an isolated right that may be exercised arbitrarily.”

Organizations filing friend-of-the-court briefs with the high court in support of the mother included the American Center for Law and Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Christian Legal Society, as well as homosexual, women’s and anti-domestic violence groups.

In support of the grandparents, 12 states, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Retired Persons were among those filing briefs.