U.S. Supreme Court Limits Government Ability to Interfere with Parents' Child-Rearing Decisions

June 5, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Recognizing the evolving nature of families, the U.S. Supreme Court today described a Washington state law that allows any person to go to court at any time to seek visitation with someone else’s children as “breathtakingly broad,” and struck down a visitation order issued under the statute.

The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision as a victory for parents and families – including nontraditional families nationwide. The Court’s ruling that the statute had been unconstitutionally applied is a serious blow to outside interference in family matters, the ACLU said.

“In acknowledging the changing nature of families nationwide, the court has also recognized the need to limit third-party interference in family decisions,” said ACLU attorney Michael Adams. “The court has done this in a way that will protect the rights of parents without clinging to outdated notions of what constitutes a family.”

The Washington state law allowed anyone to seek visitation with a child regardless of the child’s parents’ wishes, as long as the court found that such visitation is in the child’s best interest. The ACLU argued – and the court ultimately agreed – that the law was far too broad, and violated parents’ constitutional rights.

Today’s ruling included a four-justice plurality, authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as two separate concurring opinions.

“A common thread among all opinions on both sides of the issue is that our society’s once-rigid definition of ‘family’ is evolving, and that our domestic laws need to reflect that,” Adams said.

In the specific case before the Supreme Court, Troxel v. Granville, two children’s paternal grandparents sought visitation, over the objections of the children’s mother, who is their sole surviving parent.

“This was never a case about parents’ rights versus grandparents rights,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU. “It’s about whether the government can override the child-rearing decisions of a fit parent merely because the government disagrees.”

Today’s case is particularly significant for single-parent families, lesbian and gay parents and low-income parents, Adams added. “For these types of families, this case is not some abstract legal decision – it has a very real impact on their lives,” Adams said. “This ruling reinforces legal protections for these families nationwide.”

Low-income parents are increasingly facing threats from better-off third parties who claim they can provide more material benefits to the child. A common example of this, Adams said, is foster parents who seek to interfere in decisions of legal parents once foster parenting is terminated.

Lesbian and gay parents frequently face inappropriate interference by courts and third parties (such as relatives) because of anti-gay bias. Adams said today’s ruling should have “absolutely no adverse impact” on recent state court rulings that establish legal parenthood for lesbian and gay “de facto parents” who are not biologically related to the children they are raising. In fact, one of today’s opinions recognized the increasing presence of “de facto parents” nationwide.

Today’s ruling should not impede the rights of children who are old enough to have a say in important decisions that affect their own lives. “As children get older, they are constitutionally entitled to make important decisions for themselves,” Adams said. “For example, the Supreme Court has held that parents do not have an absolute right to veto a minor’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.”

The ACLU’s brief in the case is available at:

The Supreme Court decision can be found at:

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