Notable Family Law Cases: Troxel V. Granville (U.S. Supreme Court, 2000)

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Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000) is an important case in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a Washington state law that allowed any third party to petition state courts for child visitation, even where the child’s parent objected to the visitation.  The Troxel decision has had considerable impact on family law, particularly the ability for third-parties such as grandparents and other close family members to file for conservatorship or visitation of children in Texas.  

BACKGROUND FACTS

Tommie Granville (Mom) and Brad Troxel (Dad) were never married but had two daughters (the children). After their relationship ended, Dad lived in his parents’ (Grandparents) home and regularly brought his daughters to the Grandparents’ home for his weekend visit.  Sadly, Dad committed suicide. After Dad’s death, Grandparents continued seeing the children until Mom decided to limit visits with the Grandparents to one short visit per month.

The Grandparents filed a petition to obtain visitation with the children. In the state of Washington, two state laws allowed that any person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time and the court may order visitation rights for any person when that visitation would serve the best interest of the children.

At trial, the Grandparents requested two weekends of overnight visitation per month and two weeks of visitation each summer. Mom didn’t oppose the Grandparents visiting the children but only wanted to be ordered to one day of visitation per month with no overnight stay. The Washington trial court ordered the Grandparents were to have visitation one weekend per month, one week during the summer, and four hours on the Grandparents’ birthdays.

Mom appealed, during which time she re-married and her new husband adopted the children. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that nonparent lacked standing to seek visitation under the two Washington statutes unless a custody action was pending and further held that limitations on nonparental visitation actions was consistent with a parent’s fundamental constitutional right in the care, custody and management of their own children.

The Washington Supreme Court granted the Grandparents’ request for review.  This high state court found that the Grandparents’ DID have standing to seek visitation of the children irrespective of whether a custody action was pending. However, the Washington Supreme Court agreed with the Washington Court of Appeals that the Grandparents should NOT have been granted visitation over the children because the Washington state laws allowing ANY person to petition for visitation unconstitutionally infringed on the fundamental right of parents to rear their children.

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and affirmed the decision of Washington Supreme Court.

THE SUPREME COURT DECISION

The Supreme Court found that the Washington state laws, as applied to Mom and the children, unconstitutionally infringed on the fundamental constitutional right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. Since none of the parties had ever alleged and no court had ever found that Mom was unfit, the Supreme Court noted the important legal presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children. Accordingly, so long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children, there would normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of their own children. Thus, the Court found that Mom was capable of making decisions for her children and those parenting decisions could be overcome only by compelling facts supporting a government interest to interfering with Mom’s rights to parent as she chooses.

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