Appealed From: Washington Supreme Court (969 P.2d 21)
Oral Argument: Jan. 12, 2000
Subject: Grandparent visitation
Question(s) presented: Do Washington statutes, granting third parties,
including grandparents, a right to petition for visitation rights with
a minor child if visitation is "in the best interest of the child," impermissibly
interfere with a parent's fundamental interest in "care, custody and companionship
of a child" as defined by the liberty and privacy provisions of U.S. Constitution?
(2) Did the Washington Supreme Court err in holding that the Washington
statutes are unconstitutional based upon the liberty interest of the 14th
Amendment and the fundamental right to privacy inherent in the Constitution
when it used a flawed premise that a parent's fundamental right to autonomy
in child-rearing decisions is unassailable and that a state's parens patriae
power to act in a child's welfare may not be invoked absent a finding of
harm to the child or parental unfitness?
After the suicide of their son in May 1993, Jenifer and Gary Troxel sensed that they were seeing less of their two granddaughters, Natalie and Isabelle.
Instead of learning about recitals, sporting events and report cards, the children’s mother, Tommie Granville, told the Troxels that their visitation would be cut to once a month beginning in October 1993.
Granville, who never married their son, Brad, wanted to have her new husband, Kelly Wynn, adopt the girls, which would terminate all ties to natural parents and grandparents and create a "wholly new relationship,’’ according to the Washington State statutes.
The Troxels wanted to continue their visits and wanted more time than what Granville allotted. They decided to sue for visitation rights.
In 1995, State Superior Judge Michael J. Richert granted the Troxels' request, finding, that the relationship the Troxels had established was beneficial to the girls, then six and four-years-old respectively.
The judge viewed videotapes of the Troxels with their grandchildren, and determined that the grandparents did have a right to visitation. Judge Richert granted the Troxels more time also -- one weekend a month, a week in the summer, four hours on each grandparent’s birthday -- and provided that they be given regular reports on special activities.
He also ruled that the Troxels and Granville would "confer with regard to answering all questions as to the death of Brad Troxel. Since it is likely the question will be put before the petitioners by the children, the petitioners should change the subject until a unified approach can be reached as to the answers to give the children."
Granville appealed, arguing that "there was no pending custody proceeding at the time of the grandparents’ petition." Granville claimed that the Troxels were not entitled to visitation because she had not been deemed an unfit parent, a finding needed to trigger a child custody dispute.
The grandparents countered that Washington’s Nonparental Actions for Child Custody statute states, "any person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time including, but not limited to, custody proceedings. The court may order visitation rights for any person when visitation may serve the best interest of the child whether or not there has been any change of circumstance."
The courts were being asked to clarify the meaning of "any person" and "any time" under the statute.
In a 2-1 decision, the court of appeals reversed, holding that third-party visitation does not allow a third party to request visitation outside of a custody hearing case.
In a 5-4 vote, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed, holding also that special visitation by the Troxels would undermine the parental rights of Granville based on the 14th Amendment.
"Some parents and judges will not care if their child is physically disciplined by a third person," the majority said. "Some parents and judges will not care if a third person teaches the child a religion inconsistent with the parents' religion; and some judges and parents will not care if the child is exposed to or taught racist or sexist beliefs. But many parents and judges will care, and, between the two, the parents should be the ones to choose whether to expose their children to certain people or ideas."
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Sept. 28, 1999.