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Court Mulls Grandparents’ Rights

January 13, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ While acknowledging a ``special relationship″ between grandparents and grandchildren, Supreme Court justices appeared troubled by state laws that give grandparents broad rights to seek court-ordered visitation against parents’ wishes.

In an intense debate over an emotionally charged issue, the nation’s highest court on Wednesday assessed two competing values _ a state’s desire to promote children’s best interests and parents’ right to raise their children free from government interference.

The way the justices resolve that conflict, in a decision expected by late June, could touch every corner of America. Sixty million Americans are grandparents. So are six of the court’s nine members.

A majority of the justices voiced grave concerns about a Washington state law that allowed ``any person,″ relative or nonrelative, to win a court-ordered right to see a child any time such visitation was found to be in a child’s best interest.

``Breathtakingly broad,″ Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called it before asking one lawyer, ``Do you defend it ... any person, any time?″

Early in the hourlong session of arguments, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked whether the law might allow a little girl’s ``great aunt″ to ``come in and say, ’I want to take her to the movies every Friday.‴

And Justice Stephen G. Breyer indicated he was not about to favor a law that would grant visitation rights to ``an accordion player who wants to visit once a year,″ even if music lessons were in a child’s best interest.

The state law also came under spirited questioning from Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But Breyer also asked about the ``special″ nature of a case involving grandparents seeking more time with their grandchildren. And Justice David H. Souter, otherwise hostile to Washington’s law, discussed the ``special relationship″ a grandparent might have with a grandchild.

Justice John Paul Stevens, at 79 the court’s oldest member, asked several questions focusing on a parent’s asserted ``absolute veto″ power over how often grandparents can see their grandchildren. ``Is there no relief for a grandparent?″ he asked.

While all 50 states have laws allowing grandparents and others to seek visitation after divorces or under other circumstances, only a handful of those laws go as far as Washington’s. The state’s Supreme Court struck down the law in late 1998, ruling it violated parents’ rights.

That decision wiped out an Anacortes, Wash., couple’s legal right to see their two granddaughters.

Gary and Jenifer Troxel, who sat through the court proceeding, seek to regain the right to see the two girls, 10-year-old Natalie and 8-year-old Isabelle, more often than their mother, Tommie Granville Wynn, is willing to let them.

``The court should balance all the interests,″ Seattle lawyer Mark Olson argued for the Troxels, emphasizing the importance of letting children ``know where they come from.″

But Seattle lawyer Catherine Smith, representing the girls’ mother, said the visitation order the Troxels obtained from a state court violated her client’s ``right to make these decisions absent a showing that the children were being harmed.″

The ``pernicious effect″ of Washington’s invalidated law, Smith said, is a parent being forced to defend ``a perfectly reasonable decision.... No one should be brought into court for that kind of suit.″

The girls’ father, Brad Troxel, committed suicide in 1993. He and Tommie Granville were never married but had two daughters during their relationship. When they separated, Troxel lived with his parents. The girls regularly visited their father at the Troxels’ home.

After the suicide, Natalie and Isabelle continued seeing their grandparents regularly until their mother limited their visits.

The Troxels went into state court, and two years later were awarded visitation of one weekend a month, one week during the summer and certain other days.

While Granville appealed, she married Kelly Wynn. He then adopted the girls.

Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Ginsburg and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy are the court’s grandparents. Two others _ Breyer and Justice Clarence Thomas _ are parents but have no grandchildren. Souter is a bachelor.

Thomas has other relevant experience: he was raised by his grandparents.

A survey released last week by AARP found about one in nine American grandparents over 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.

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