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The U. S. Supreme Court: Grandparent Visitation Rights


The Story

The parents of the two girls never married. The parents ended their relationship. Afterwards, the fa- ther moved in with his parents. The children visited the father in his parents’ home. Consequently, the paternal grandparents saw the girls a lot. They at- tended the girls’ sport functions. The grandparents actively followed their school progress.

The father committed suicide. Shortly after- wards, the mother stopped visits between the pater- nal grandparents and the two girls. The grandpar- ents filed for court-ordered visitation. Sometime between the lower and appellant court decisions, the mother remarried. The stepfather adopted the child. Adoptive parents, in this case the stepfather, have the same rights as biologi- cal parents. Consequently, the parents argued that the adoption cut off all legal ties with the paternal grandparents.

Court Outcomes

The first court granted the grandparents visita- tion. The Court of Appeals, the second court, dis- missed the visitation petition and terminated the visitation order. The decision of the Washington State Supreme Court favored the mother and adop- tive father. The state supreme court denied the visi- tation order because parents have a right to rear their children as they see fit.

The Appeal

The U. S. Supreme Court concluded that the rights of parents prevail over the rights of grandparents. The government may only intrude on the rights of unfit parents. If there is threat of harm to the child then the government may interfere with the rights of parents. Traditionally, these are the only “compel- ling reasons” for the government to intrude on the rights of parents.

Giving third parties, anyone but parents, visita- tion rights because it served the best interests of the child made Washington’s law too broad. They con- cluded that the parents were fit to act in the best in- terests of the child. The U. S. Supreme Court said that the lower court failed to consider the mothers’ be- liefs about the children’s best interests. When par- ents are fit, courts must apply additional weight to the beliefs of the parents. The mother never sought to cut off all visitations with the grandparents. The dispute was about the restrictions placed on grand- parental visitation.

The U. S. Supreme Court did not address the con- stitutionality of Washington’s law. The Court did not address the constitutionality of the laws in the other 49 states. It also did not require proof about harm to the child and third party visits (Soto, 2001). The Court made their decision without explicitly giving the legal standard of review.


Based on the U. S. Supreme Court decision, pa- rental rights surpass that of grandparents. The government may only intrude on the rights of un- fit parents. When a child is in danger of harm, the government may interfere on the rights of parents. These are the only compelling reasons for the gov- ernment to intrude on the rights of parents.

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