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Ruling upholds California's grandparent visitation law


SAN FRANCISCO - Grandparents may be given visitation rights to see their grandchildren even if the parent with custody objects, the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 yesterday.

In the decision, the state's highest court upheld the constitutionality of California's grandparent visitation law but placed the legal burden on grandparents to prove that such visits would not harm the grandchild.

Yesterday's ruling overturned a lower court's decision that found grandparent visitation orders violated a mother's constitutional right to care for her child as she saw best. That reasoning, rejected yesterday, reflected a recent trend nationwide in which appellate courts have rejected similar grandparent visitation laws as unconstitutional.

Justice Ming Chin, one of the three dissenters, said that court-ordered visitation by grandparents infringes on a custodial parent's right to direct the child's upbringing.

"I am not insensitive to the tremendous hurt most grandparents feel [when] they are cut off from their grandchildren," Chin wrote. But "family privacy is grounded on the right of parents to rear their children without unwarranted state interference."

The ruling stemmed from a dispute between Karen Butler, who now lives in Utah and has sole custody of her daughter, Emily, 9, and Emily's paternal grandparents, Leanne and Charles Harris.

Butler and Emily's father split up before their daughter was born, and courts permitted him only supervised visitation. Butler claimed that her former husband had physically abused her. She said he was violent and had threatened to take Emily, and she feared that his parents would not be able to protect Emily from him.

The grandparents nevertheless obtained court orders giving them several weeks a year with Emily, who visits her grandparents in California three times a year.

Jeffrey W. Doeringer, who represented the mother in the case, said he was "greatly disturbed" by yesterday's ruling.

"It is going to make parents more subject to attack by grandparents and create much more litigation," Doeringer said.

The ruling isn't an automatic guarantee that grandparents can see their grandchildren, however. Paul W. Leehey, who represented the Harrises, said grandparents would "need significant evidence to show that a child should be seeing them."

Leanne Harris said she was pleased that the state high court found the visitation law constitutional but disappointed that she and her husband would have to return to the trial court to win visitation again under the rules established in yesterday's decision.

The ruling distinguished California's grandparent visitation law from a similar Washington law that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2000. That ruling prompted several state high courts to reject grandparent visitation laws.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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