Ruling on Washington Visitation Law Suggests Balanced Approach to Parental Rights

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Splintered High Court finds middle ground recognizing changes in the American family
June 5, 2000

(NEW YORK, June 5, 2000) — Making its strongest statements yet on changing family structures, the United States Supreme Court on Monday struck down an expansive Washington visitation statute and rejected an appeal by a couple seeking more time with their grandchildren. The Justices, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund noted, were careful not to foreclose protections for lesbian, gay, and other non-biological parents.

“This is a very important decision for lesbian and gay families, who are at the forefront of family law changes. The Court adopted a sound, middle course in this case, one that not only appropriately respects the rights of parents, but acknowledges that no hard-and-fast rule should govern every single family dispute,” said Deputy Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow, co-author of an amicus brief in Troxel v. Granville.

The Justices splintered 6-3 in the case, producing six separate opinions. The plurality opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor held that the Constitution requires that “material weight” be given to the views of parents regarding the control and care of their children, although the decision does not suggest that parents have an absolute veto over those matters. Mindful that “[t]he demographic changes of the past century make it difficult to speak of an average American family,” and that many people take on “duties of a parental nature,” the Court also decided the case narrowly to avoid broad legal pronouncements with adverse consequences for other kinds of familial relationships.

The Troxel case was brought by a Washington couple who sought more visitation time with two girls, ages 10 and 8, over the objections of the girls’ mother, and turned on an exceptionally broad Washington statute allowing “any person” to petition for visitation at “any time.”

Lambda’s brief, filed with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, had urged the Court to strike down the law as overly broad. But in the interest of non-biological lesbian and gay parents who, unlike the grandparents in this case, have unusually significant relationships warranting protection, the brief also urged the Justices to take a balanced approach and avoid an overly expansive view of parental autonomy and control.

The High Court on Monday indeed found the visitation statute unconstitutional without endorsing the Washington Supreme Court’s analysis in its 1999 ruling, which made the rights of parents almost absolute. The Justices -- who rarely make forays into family law, an area normally reserved for state courts -- left unanswered what standards will pass constitutional muster, saying only that the Washington law does not.

“Gay parents sometimes must defend themselves from legal challenges by meddling third parties who disapprove of the parents’ sexual orientation, while non-biological parents can be shut out of their children’s lives entirely,” said Supervising Attorney Patricia M. Logue, who also co-authored the Lambda brief. She added, “This ruling provides hope for families who face both of these painful situations.”

Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn added, “We are also heartened that the Court adopted a respectful tone about the many kinds of families who raise children well. The decision leaves legal room for adults, like lesbian and gay parents without biological or legal ties to children, to play a role in their children’s upbringing.”

Based in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

(Troxel v. Granville, No. 99-138)


CONTACT: Joneil Adriano 212-809-8585 x241, 1-888-987-1984 pager
Ruth E. Harlow 212-809-8585 x210
Patricia M. Logue 312-663-4413 x30


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