Troxel v. Granville
In Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), seven Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing of their own children, absent clear signs of unfitness.
Facts of the Case
Brad Troxel and Tommie Granville, residents of Washington state, were in a non-marital relationship, which produced two daughters, and ultimately ended in 1991. After the relationship ended, Brad lived with his parents (the girls' grandparents) and regularly brought his daughters home with him.
Tragically, Brad committed suicide in May 1993. Thereafter for a time the visits to the grandparents continued until Tommie informed them that she wanted to limit their visitation to one short visit per month with no overnight stays. In response the grandparents filed suit seeking visitation rights, under a Washington state statue which broadly allowed any person (whether related or not) to petition the court for visitation rights, and further allowed the court to decide if such rights were in the best interests of the child, and sought two overnight visitation weekends per month and two weeks of visitation in the summer. Notably, the grandparents never argued that Tommie was unfit as a parent.
Lower Court Rulings
The Washington Superior Court for the county ruled and entered a decree for one overnight visitation per month, one week per summer, and four hours on each of the petitioning grandparents' birthdays. Tommie appealed the decision; in the interim she married and her husband formally adopted her daughters.
The Washington Court of Appeals reversed, stating that the grandparents had no standing to seek visitation absent a custody hearing; though the court stated that a limitation on non-parental visitation was consistent with the fundamental rights of parents in caring for their children, it did not rule on the constitutionality of the statute.
The Washington Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's ruling; though it disagreed with the appellate court's reasoning on the statute, it stated that the statute was inconsistent with the United States Constitution, in that it was overly broad and interfered with the parent's right to raise his/her children absent a showing of harm. The Troxels then appealed to the United States Supreme Court which granted certiorari.
Supreme Court Ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Washington Supreme Court's ruling. It did so on a plurality decision, with some incredibly unusual alignments among the Justices:
- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor authored the opinion, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, ruling that the state statue as applied interfered with Tommie Granville's right to make decisions regarding the care of her children.
- Justice David Souter wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that the Washington Supreme Court's second basis for invalidating the statute -- that it was overbroad -- was consistent with prior SCOTUS cases, and that ended the case with no need to opine further.
- Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion, arguing that strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard of review to apply to infringements of fundamental rights, and the State had no compelling interest in interfering with the rights of a fit parent.
- Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that the Court should have not granted certiorari on a case where a state Supreme Court ruling would merely require its Legislature to draft a better statute, but then argued that the statue was not facially invalid, that the appellate courts did not adequately review the facts of the case, and that he would suggest remand to require them to do so. He further argued that the Court has never held the parent-child relationship to be "so inflexible as to establish a rigid constitutional shield, protecting every arbitrary parental decision from challenge absent a threshold finding of harm" and that the interests of the child should be considered as well.
- Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate dissenting opinion, arguing that the Court's ruling would "be ushering in a new regime of judicially prescribed, and federally prescribed, family law", an area where Federal courts would be no better than state legislatures, but at least the state legislatures would do more harm in a specific area, could more quickly reverse their decision, and were accountable to the people. Scalia wrote:
- "In my view, a right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children is among the "unalienable Rights" with which the Declaration of Independence proclaims "all Men ... are endowed by their Creator." And in my view that right is also among the "othe[r] [rights] retained by the people" which the Ninth Amendment says the Constitution’s enumeration of rights "shall not be construed to deny or disparage."
- Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote another separate dissenting opinion, arguing that the state Supreme Court's decision invalidating the statute was itself overbroad.