WASHINGTON - Strongly reaffirming the right of parents to raise children in their own way, a divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that judges may not force unwilling parents to grant visits to grandparents and other relatives.
"So long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children - that is, [the parent] is fit - there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the main opinion in a case from Washington state.
Though the ruling came in a case involving the relationship between parents and grandparents, the main opinion used unusually sweeping language to portray the constitutional right of parents to make most of the important decisions about their children's lives.
The court praised "the important role" that grandparents play "in many cases," and noted that the nature of the American family is changing. But the justices stressed that governments could not grant grandparents and other relatives rights that override the "traditional presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interest of his or her child."
Responding to the common practice of state judges to decide legal issues about children based on the youngsters' "best interests," the majority suggested that this standard was improper if it conflicts with parents' wishes.
The Constitution, the court said, "does not permit a state to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make child-rearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a 'better' decision could be made."
It was the court's first decision in a dispute growing out of the "grandparents rights" movement. The result was a decided loss for grandparents or other relatives - at least when their wishes conflict with parents' wishes. Still, the court stopped short of giving parents an absolute veto over all visitation requests by others.
Advocates of parental rights expressed sympathy for grandparents who want to visit their grandchildren, but praised the court for staying "focused on the state law's sweeping intrusion into the family realm," as Scott Bullock, an attorney with the family advocacy group Institute for Justice, put it.
Grandparents' rights groups stressed what they called the "cautious" nature of the court ruling. Cheryl Matheis, state legislative director of AARP, said "the court clearly left the door open for more narrowly drawn grandparent visitation statutes."
The 6-3 ruling might be difficult for lower courts to apply case by case, because the decision emerged in six separate opinions - three for the majority and three for the dissenters.
None of the opinions issued by those in the majority spoke for more than four justices. Thus, the outcome had to be pieced together from the three majority opinions.
The overall result, however, was clear: At least five justices embraced a fundamental right of parents to make decisions about their children, to be overridden only when state courts or officials have the strongest reasons to intervene to protect the children.
The decision does appear to leave the states with freedom to experiment with new laws to give grandparents some visitation rights. Maryland, like all other states, has a grandparent visitation law that will now have to conform to the ruling yesterday.
The court, for example, did not require grandparents or others seeking visitation to prove in every case that the children would face harm unless visits were permitted.
O'Connor stressed that the court was not defining "the precise scope" of the right of parents to control visitation with their children when other relatives are seeking guaranteed visits. She added that the court was not casting doubt on all 50 states' laws on the matter and that the constitutionality of any state law depended on how it was enforced.
Only one of those laws - in Washington state - was at issue in the case, and the court did not even strike down that one explicitly. It ruled instead that the law had been enforced too broadly in the case - that of a Washington mother who was ordered to allow her children to spend overnight visits with her daughters' paternal grandparents.
The mother did not oppose all visitation, and the court appeared to have considered that gesture to be a factor in ruling in her favor. The justices, however, did not make such a concession a condition for a parent's right to refuse to allow visits by grandparents.
The court left open the possibility that grandparents and other relatives could gain visitation rights with clear-cut proof that the children were facing some kind of harm from the parents.
The ruling dealt only with a feud between parents and grandparents, but the breadth of O'Connor's opinion could affect the court fight over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez and his father's desire to return home with him to Cuba.
The ruling appeared to enhance the right of the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to control Elian's legal destiny - including the father's right to oppose a grant of asylum.
The Justice Department's refusal to consider asylum so long as the father objects was upheld by a federal appeals court last week. But the boy's Miami relatives say they will challenge that result in further appeals. The ruling yesterday could reduce the relatives' chances of winning an appeal.
The Washington state law at issue was among the broadest in the nation on visitation rights. It permitted any person to go to court to seek a visitation order.
That law was used by an Anacortes, Wash., couple, Jeniferand Gary Troxel, to gain the right to visit their two granddaughters. The girls' father, Gary, was the Troxel's son. After he committed suicide, the girls' mother, TommieGranville, refused to allow lengthy visits for the girls with the Troxels.
A state court ordered the mother to send the children to the grandparents' home one weekend a month, one week in the summer and four hours each on the grandparents' birthdays. That order was thrown out by the state Supreme Court. The Troxels then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a separate opinion, went even further, arguing that parents' rights were so fundamental that they could be overridden only by state courts in the rarest of cases. Justice David H. Souter said the Washington law simply went too far to override parents' rights.