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U.S. Supreme Court upholds parents’ fundamental rights

June 7th, 2000

CONTACT: Rich Jefferson (540) 338-8663 or media@hslda.org

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Parental rights were affirmed as one of our fundamental rights this week by a plurality opinion of the Supreme Court in Troxel v. Granville. The case focused on third party visitation rights and a “breathtakingly broad” Washington State law that was struck down in 1998 by the Washington State Supreme Court.

U.S. courts treat “fundamental rights,” such as freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, as the foundation to the American system of self-government. Fundamental rights receive the highest constitutional protection. Such constitutional protection of parental rights is clearly within the original intent of the Constitution’s Framers.

The Washington State law had allowed any third party to visit a child, even against the wishes of the parents. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional on its face. The U.S. Supreme Court’s plurality opinion, however, did not go that far, but held only that the mother's rights had been violated in this case.

No single opinion was backed by a majority of justices. The nine justices issued six different opinions. However, eight of those opinions affirmed the importance of parental rights.

“This means that parents have the highest level of constitutional protection against government agencies invading the lives of their children,” said Michael Farris, Patrick Henry College president and a long-time litigator in the arena of parents’ constitutional rights. “While the Court was split on the exact procedural steps that should be taken in a case involving grandparent visitation, there is a clear majority which endorses the view that parents’ rights are fundamental.”

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the plurality opinion that was only signed by four justices; herself, Chief Justice William Rehnquist as well as justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice O'Connor noted that the Washington State trial judge, whose original ruling was reversed by the state supreme court in order to protect parents’ rights, had simply substituted his notion of what was good parenting for the mother's desires.

“The Due Process Clause does not permit a State to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make childrearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a 'better' decision could be made.”

The mother, Tommie Granville, had agreed to allow the grandparents to visit her two daughters. But the grandparents, Gary and Jenifer Troxel, went to court to demand more time. Brad Troxel and Tommie Granville never married, but had two daughters, Natalie and Isabelle. Brad committed suicide in 1993. Tommie later married Kelly Wynn, who adopted the girls.

Despite the fractured ruling, Troxel will certainly strengthen protections for parents in court. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his concurring opinion, six justices held that parental rights are fundamental, and courts must apply “strict scrutiny” to any infringement of any fundamental right.


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