Troxel v. Granville
530 U.S. 57 (2000)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1999

Syllabus

TROXEL ET VIR v. GRANVILLE

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WASHINGTON

No. 99-138. Argued January 12, 2000-Decided June 5, 2000

Washington Rev. Code §26.1O.160(3) permits "[a]ny person" to petition for visitation rights "at any time" and authorizes state superior courts to grant such rights whenever visitation may serve a child's best interest. Petitioners Troxel petitioned for the right to visit their deceased son's daughters. Respondent Granville, the girls' mother, did not oppose all visitation, but objected to the amount sought by the Troxels. The Superior Court ordered more visitation than Granville desired, and she appealed. The State Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the Troxels' petition. In affirming, the State Supreme Court held, inter alia, that § 26.10.160(3) unconstitutionally infringes on parents' fundamental right to rear their children. Reasoning that the Federal Constitution permits a State to interfere with this right only to prevent harm or potential harm to the child, it found that § 26.10.160(3) does not require a threshold showing of harm and sweeps too broadly by permitting any person to petition at any time with the only requirement being that the visitation serve the best interest of the child.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

137 Wash. 2d 1, 969 P. 2d 21, affirmed.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE GINSBURG, and JUSTICE BREYER, concluded that § 26.10.160(3), as applied to Granville and her family, violates her due process right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of her daughters. Pp.63-75.

(a) The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause has a substantive component that "provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests," Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 720, including parents' fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children, see, e. g., Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U. S. 645, 651. Pp.63-66.

(b) Washington's breathtakingly broad statute effectively permits a court to disregard and overturn any decision by a fit custodial parent concerning visitation whenever a third party affected by the decision files a visitation petition, based solely on the judge's determination of the child's best interest. A parent's estimation of the child's best interest is accorded no deference. The State Supreme Court had the oppor-


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Syllabus

tunity, but declined, to give § 26.10.160(3) a narrower reading. A combination of several factors compels the conclusion that § 26.10.160(3), as applied here, exceeded the bounds of the Due Process Clause. First, the Troxels did not allege, and no court has found, that Granville was an unfit parent. There is a presumption that fit parents act in their children's best interests, Parham v. J. R., 442 U. S. 584, 602; there is normally no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question fit parents' ability to make the best decisions regarding their children, see, e. g., Reno v. Flores, 507 U. S. 292, 304. The problem here is not that the Superior Court intervened, but that when it did so, it gave no special weight to Granville's determination of her daughters' best interests. More importantly, that court appears to have applied the opposite presumption, favoring grandparent visitation. In effect, it placed on Granville the burden of disproving that visitation would be in her daughters' best interest and thus failed to provide any protection for her fundamental right. The court also gave no weight to Granville's having assented to visitation even before the filing of the petition or subsequent court intervention. These factors, when considered with the Superior Court's slender findings, show that this case involves nothing more than a simple disagreement between the court and Granville concerning her children's best interests, and that the visitation order was an unconstitutional infringement on Granville's right to make decisions regarding the rearing of her children. Pp. 67-73.

(c) Because the instant decision rests on § 26.10.160(3)'s sweeping breadth and its application here, there is no need to consider the question whether the Due Process Clause requires all nonparental visitation statutes to include a showing of harm or potential harm to the child as a condition precedent to granting visitation or to decide the precise scope of the parental due process right in the visitation context. There is also no reason to remand this case for further proceedings. The visitation order clearly violated the Constitution, and the parties should not be forced into additional litigation that would further burden Granville's parental right. Pp. 73-75.

JUSTICE SOUTER concluded that the Washington Supreme Court's second reason for invalidating its own state statute-that it sweeps too broadly in authorizing any person at any time to request (and a judge to award) visitation rights, subject only to the State's particular bestinterests standard-is consistent with this Court's prior cases. This ends the case, and there is no need to decide whether harm is required or to consider the precise scope of a parent's right or its necessary protections. pp. 75-79.


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Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
There is a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment for a parent to oversee the care, custody, and control of a child.
Facts
Tommie Granville and Brad Troxel, an unmarried couple, had two daughters together before they separated. Brad eventually committed suicide, and Granville told the Troxels (his parents) that they could not have more than one visit per month with the children under their visitation rights. They brought an action to obtain visitation rights under a Washington law that allowed any person to bring such a petition at any time. The Troxels succeeded in securing visitation for one weekend each month, one week during the summer, and four hours on each of their birthdays. During the appeals process, Granville married, and her husband eventually adopted the children.

The state appellate court determined that non-parents cannot bring a petition to seek visitation with children except in the context of a pending custody action. The state Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that the Troxels actually did have standing under the statute, but it ruled that the statute was an unconstitutional infringement on the fundamental rights of parents to control the upbringing of their children.

Opinions

Plurality

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

The Due Process Clause prevents the government from intruding on fundamental rights and liberty interests, one of which is the liberty interest that parents have in controlling the care and custody of their children. The state may not give rights to any third party to challenge any decision by a parent regarding visitation with that parent's child in state courts. Giving a state court judge the discretion to determine the best interests of the child in these situations violates due process, especially when there is no allegation that the parent is unfit. It is reasonable to presume that parents will act in the best interests of their children, so the state should not interfere and take that role away from them.

Concurrence

  • David H. Souter (Author)

The Washington Supreme Court acted correctly in striking down its own state statute, a decision that complies with Supreme Court precedents.

Concurrence

  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

This decision complies with long-standing jurisprudence in the area of substantive due process.

Dissent

  • John Paul Stevens

Judicial review by the Supreme Court is inappropriate when a state supreme court required its state legislature to revise a law so that it would comply with the U.S. Constitution. Since the Court accepted the case, however, it should have attempted to resolve it on federal rather than state grounds.

Dissent

  • Antonin Scalia (Author)

The legislature rather than the court should resolve this issue because federal law and the federal Constitution should not give rise to a federal body of family law created by the judicial system. The view that the right to raise one's children was created by the Declaration of Independence and reserved to the people in the Ninth Amendment is merely a personal opinion, albeit a well-supported one.

Dissent

  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

Third parties who seek visitation with children should not be required to show that the lack of visitation would affirmatively harm the child. Once further proceedings had unfolded in state court under that adjusted standard, the Court could return to any federal questions that might arise later, such as whether the statute failed to protect the parent's rights sufficiently.

Case Commentary

Limiting its decision to the facts of the specific case, the plurality refrained from finding that the law was unconstitutional on its face. Some of the concurrences reached that issue and found that it was unconstitutional, but for now laws supporting grandparents' visitation rights remain valid.

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