A Rebuff of Grandparents' Rights ; in a Rare Foray into Family Law, Court Rules That Parents' Decisions Prevail on the Issue of Grandparent Visitation

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Rebuff of Grandparents' Rights ; in a Rare Foray into Family Law, Court Rules That Parents' Decisions Prevail on the Issue of Grandparent Visitation


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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