AP

JUNE 05, 16:00 EDT

Court Curbs Grandparents' Rights
By RICHARD CARELLI
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court gave new vigor to parents' ``fundamental right'' to raise their families free from government interference, ruling Monday that Washington state went too far in letting grandparents and others seek visitation.

The thrust of the 6-3 decision: States must be very careful in helping grandparents and others with close ties to children win the right to see them regularly against parents' wishes.

``So 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,'' Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the court's main opinion.

But the dispassionately worded ruling in one of the most emotionally charged cases in recent Supreme Court history stopped far short of answering all questions the state courts face daily in visitation battles over children.

The court did not give parents absolute veto power over who gets to visit their children, disagreeing with part of a ruling by Washington's highest state court that appeared to do so.

And in finding the state law ``breathtakingly broad,'' Monday's decision said nothing to directly endanger grandparent-visitation laws in all 49 other states.

``We want to assure grandparents throughout the country that their visitation orders have not been lost by this decision,'' said Josephine D'Antonio of Grandparents Count.

Perhaps most notably, however, the ruling gave grandparents no special status in visitation cases.

O'Connor, one of six grandparents among the nine justices, lumped America's 60 million grandparents in with all ``persons outside the nuclear family'' in discussing state efforts to provide visitation rights.

Scott Bullock of the conservative Institute for Justice praised the ruling. ``While one can hardly avoid sympathizing with grandparents who wish to have contact with their grandchildren, the Supreme Court thankfully remained focused on the state law's sweeping intrusion into the family realm.''

The American Civil Liberties Union's Michael Adams also hailed the decision as ``a serious blow to outside interference in family matters.''

The case involved an Anacortes, Wash., couple left with no legal right to see their two granddaughters. Gary and Jenifer Troxel had gone to state court to seek more time with the two girls, 10-year-old Natalie and 8-year-old Isabelle.

The girls are the daughters of the Troxels' dead son. After he died, the girls' mother, Tommie Granville, limited their visits to see their grandparents. The Troxels went to court, and two years later were awarded visitation of one weekend a month, one week during the summer and four hours on the girls' birthdays.

They benefitted from a state law that allowed ``any person,'' a relative or not, to win a court-ordered right to see a child any time such visitation was found to be in a child's best interest. Under the law, state courts did not have to determine whether a child would be harmed by disallowing visitation.

Many state laws allow only grandparents to seek visitation rights, or limit the privilege to people who show a substantial relationship with a child.

The justices did not say whether a state visitation law must require a showing of harm. They also did not give definitive answers about just who should be allowed to seek visitation rights or what standard judges should employ in protecting the rights of parents and nuclear families.

The decision comes at a time when intact nuclear families are becoming scarcer and the number of nontraditional families is rising.

``The demographic changes of the past century make it difficult to speak of an average American family,'' O'Connor said. ``The composition of families varies greatly from household to household.''

A recently released survey by AARP found about one in nine American grandparents above the age of 50 helps care for at least one grandchild. The survey showed that 8 percent provide day care regularly, and 3 percent function as parents, rearing a grandchild.

The decision yielded six opinions. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer signed on to O'Connor's opinion. Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas concurred in the outcome but wrote separately.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy each wrote dissenting opinions.

O'Connor, Rehnquist, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg are grandparents. Thomas was raised by his grandparents.

The case is Troxel vs. Granville, 99-138.

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On the Net: For current Supreme Court decisions: http://www.supremecourtus.gov or http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.