State Supreme Court Strikes Down Grandparent Visitation Law

UPDATED: 1:33 pm PDT April 7, 2005

For the second time, the state Supreme Court has struck down Washington's grandparent visitation law as unconstitutional.

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the court said parents have a fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit, and Washington's law amounted to government meddling.

The current law replaced another state law that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2000, forcing dozens of states to rewrite their own statutes.

"This has a larger implication, which is personal autonomy," said attorney Jordan Gross, who represented the father in the Washington state case. "Fit parents have a fundamental constitutional right to raise their children free from state interference."

The case revolves around a girl who was born on Christmas Day in 1992. Her parents split up after she was born, and when she was a baby she moved with her father to Germany, where they lived with her father's parents.

When the girl was four, her father returned to the United States and she stayed with her grandparents in Germany for three years. In 2000, the girl went to live with her father and his new wife in Snohomish County, Wash. The father's parents petitioned the court for visitation.

Supreme Court papers did not say why the grandparents decided to petition for visitation.

The court said Thursday that the grandparents have no right to court-ordered visits because Washington's law on the matter is unconstitutional.

The state law says visits with a grandparent are presumed to be in the child's best interest, even if the parent disagrees. This section, Justice Richard Sanders wrote in the unanimous opinion, "directly contravenes the constitutionally required presumption that the fit parent acts in the child's best interests."

Unless a parent is mistreating a child, the courts have held that parenting is a fundamental right with which the government should not interfere. A court should be allowed to order visits only if the grandparent can prove that lack of visitation would harm the child, the Supreme Court said.

For now, this means Washington has no grandparent visitation law. That worries Dave McRae, Seattle chapter chairman of the Grandparents Rights Organization of Washington. He's working with legislators to write a new law that would allow grandparents to ask a court for visitation rights.

"It's just heartbreaking, the stories we hear about kids being cut off from people who love them and who are good for them, just because of arguments or a divorce or a death of one parent," McRae said. "We're not trying to take away rights from anybody -- all we're asking for is a reasonable solution for grandparents."



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