Troxel v. Granville/Dissent Kennedy

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Justice Kennedy, dissenting.

The Supreme Court of Washington has determined that petitioners Jenifer and Gary Troxel have standing under state law to seek court-ordered visitation with their grandchildren, notwithstanding the objections of the children's parent, respondent Tommie Granville. The statute relied upon provides:

"Any person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time including, but not limited to, custody proceedings. The court may order visitation rights for any person when visitation may serve the best interest of the child whether or not there has been any change of circumstances." Wash. Rev. Code § 26.10.160(3) (1994).

After acknowledging this statutory right to sue for visitation, the State Supreme Court invalidated the statute as violative of the United States Constitution, because it interfered with a parent's right to raise his or her child free from unwarranted interference. In re Smith, 137 Wash. 2d 1, 969 P.2d 21 (1998). Although parts of the court's decision may be open to differing interpretations, it seems to be agreed that the court invalidated the statute on its face, ruling it a nullity.

The first flaw the State Supreme Court found in the statute is that it allows an award of visitation to a non-parent without a finding that harm to the child would result if visitation were withheld; and the second is that the statute allows any person to seek visitation at any time. In my view the first theory is too broad to be correct, as it appears to contemplate that the best interests of the child standard may not be applied in any visitation case. I acknowledge the distinct possibility that visitation cases may arise where, considering the absence of other protection for the parent under state laws and procedures, the best interests of the child standard would give insufficient protection to the parent's constitutional right to raise the child without undue intervention by the state; but it is quite a different matter to say, as I understand the Supreme Court of Washington to have said, that a harm to the child standard is required in every instance.

Given the error I see in the State Supreme Court's central conclusion that the best interests of the child standard is never appropriate in third-party visitation cases, that court should have the first opportunity to reconsider this case. I would remand the case to the state court for further proceedings. If it then found the statute has been applied in an unconstitutional manner because the best interests of the child standard gives insufficient protection to a parent under the circumstances of this case, or if it again declared the statute a nullity because the statute seems to allow any person at all to seek visitation at any time, the decision would present other issues which may or may not warrant further review in this Court. These include not only the protection the Constitution gives parents against state-ordered visitation but also the extent to which federal rules for facial challenges to statutes control in state courts. These matters, however, should await some further case. The judgment now under review should be vacated and remanded on the sole ground that the harm ruling that was so central to the Supreme Court of Washington's decision was error, given its broad formulation.

Turning to the question whether harm to the child must be the controlling standard in every visitation proceeding, there is a beginning point that commands general, perhaps unanimous, agreement in our separate opinions: As our case law has developed, the custodial parent has a constitutional right to determine, without undue interference by the state, how best to raise, nurture, and educate the child. The parental right stems from the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399, 401 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-535 (1925); Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651-652 (1972); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 232-233 (1972); Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753-754 (1982). Pierce and Meyer, had they been decided in recent times, may well have been grounded upon First Amendment principles protecting freedom of speech, belief, and religion. Their formulation and subsequent interpretation have been quite different, of course; and they long have been interpreted to have found in Fourteenth Amendment concepts of liberty an independent right of the parent in the "custody, care and nurture of the child," free from state intervention. Prince, supra, at 166. The principle exists, then, in broad formulation; yet courts must use considerable restraint, including careful adherence to the incremental instruction given by the precise facts of particular cases, as they seek to give further and more precise definition to the right.

The State Supreme Court sought to give content to the parent's right by announcing a categorical rule that third parties who seek visitation must always prove the denial of visitation would harm the child. After reviewing some of the relevant precedents, the Supreme Court of Washington concluded " '[t]he requirement of harm is the sole protection that parents have against pervasive state interference in the parenting process.' " In re Smith, 137 Wash. 2d, at 19-20, 969 P.2d, at 30 (quoting Hawk v. Hawk, 855 S. W. 2d 573, 580 (Tenn. 1993)). For that reason, "[s]hort of preventing harm to the child," the court considered the best interests of the child to be "insufficient to serve as a compelling state interest overruling a parent's fundamental rights." In re Smith, supra, at 20, 969 P.2d, at 30.

While it might be argued as an abstract matter that in some sense the child is always harmed if his or her best interests are not considered, the law of domestic relations, as it has evolved to this point, treats as distinct the two standards, one harm to the child and the other the best interests of the child. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington rests on that assumption, and I, too, shall assume that there are real and consequential differences between the two standards.

On the question whether one standard must always take precedence over the other in order to protect the right of the parent or parents, "[o]ur Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices" do not give us clear or definitive answers. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 721 (1997). The consensus among courts and commentators is that at least through the 19th century there was no legal right of visitation; court-ordered visitation appears to be a 20th-century phenomenon. See, e.g., 1 D. Kramer, Legal Rights of Children 124, 136 (2d ed. 1994); 2 J. Atkinson, Modern Child Custody Practice § 8.10 (1986). A case often cited as one of the earliest visitation decisions, Succession of Reiss, 46 La. Ann. 347, 353, 15 So. 151, 152 (1894), explained that "the obligation ordinarily to visit grandparents is moral and not legal"-a conclusion which appears consistent with that of American common law jurisdictions of the time. Early 20th-century exceptions did occur, often in cases where a relative had acted in a parental capacity, or where one of a child's parents had died. See Douglass v. Merriman, 163 S.C.. 210, 161 S. E. 452 (1931) (maternal grandparent awarded visitation with child when custody was awarded to father; mother had died); Solomon v. Solomon, 319 Ill. App. 618, 49 N. E. 2d 807 (1943) (paternal grandparents could be given visitation with child in custody of his mother when their son was stationed abroad; case remanded for fitness hearing); Consaul v. Consaul, 63 N. Y. S. 2d 688 (Sup. Ct. Jefferson Cty. 1946) (paternal grandparents awarded visitation with child in custody of his mother; father had become incompetent). As a general matter, however, contemporary state-court decisions acknowledge that "[h]istorically, grandparents had no legal right of visitation," Campbell v. Campbell, 896 P.2d 635, 642, n. 15 (Utah App. 1995), and it is safe to assume other third parties would have fared no better in court.

To say that third parties have had no historical right to petition for visitation does not necessarily imply, as the Supreme Court of Washington concluded, that a parent has a constitutional right to prevent visitation in all cases not involving harm. True, this Court has acknowledged that States have the authority to intervene to prevent harm to children, see, e.g., Prince, supra, at 168-169; Yoder, supra, at 233-234, but that is not the same as saying that a heightened harm to the child standard must be satisfied in every case in which a third party seeks a visitation order. It is also true that the law's traditional presumption has been "that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children," Parham v. J. R., 442 U.S. 584, 602 (1979); and "[s]imply because the decision of a parent is not agreeable to a child or because it involves risks does not automatically transfer the power to make that decision from the parents to some agency or officer of the state," id., at 603. The State Supreme Court's conclusion that the Constitution forbids the application of the best interests of the child standard in any visitation proceeding, however, appears to rest upon assumptions the Constitution does not require.

My principal concern is that the holding seems to proceed from the assumption that the parent or parents who resist visitation have always been the child's primary caregivers and that the third parties who seek visitation have no legitimate and established relationship with the child. That idea, in turn, appears influenced by the concept that the conventional nuclear family ought to establish the visitation standard for every domestic relations case. As we all know, this is simply not the structure or prevailing condition in many households. See, e.g., Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977). For many boys and girls a traditional family with two or even one permanent and caring parent is simply not the reality of their childhood. This may be so whether their childhood has been marked by tragedy or filled with considerable happiness and fulfillment.

Cases are sure to arise-perhaps a substantial number of cases-in which a third party, by acting in a caregiving role over a significant period of time, has developed a relationship with a child which is not necessarily subject to absolute parental veto. See Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 (1989) (putative natural father not entitled to rebut state law presumption that child born in a marriage is a child of the marriage); Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978) (best interests standard sufficient in adoption proceeding to protect interests of natural father who had not legitimated the child); see also Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 261 (1983) (" '[T]he importance of the familial relationship, to the individuals involved and to the society, stems from the emotional attachments that derive from the intimacy of daily association, and from the role it plays in 'promot[ing] a way of life' through the instruction of children ... as well as from the fact of blood relationship.' " (quoting Smith v. Organization of Foster Families For Equality & Reform, 431 U.S. 816, 844 (1977) (in turn quoting Yoder, 406 U.S., at 231-233))). Some pre-existing relationships, then, serve to identify persons who have a strong attachment to the child with the concomitant motivation to act in a responsible way to ensure the child's welfare. As the State Supreme Court was correct to acknowledge, those relationships can be so enduring that "in certain circumstances where a child has enjoyed a substantial relationship with a third person, arbitrarily depriving the child of the relationship could cause severe psychological harm to the child," In re Smith, 137 Wash. 2d, at 20, 969 P.2d, at 30; and harm to the adult may also ensue. In the design and elaboration of their visitation laws, States may be entitled to consider that certain relationships are such that to avoid the risk of harm, a best interests standard can be employed by their domestic relations courts in some circumstances.

Indeed, contemporary practice should give us some pause before rejecting the best interests of the child standard in all third-party visitation cases, as the Washington court has done. The standard has been recognized for many years as a basic tool of domestic relations law in visitation proceedings. Since 1965 all 50 States have enacted a third-party visitation statute of some sort. See ante, at 15, n. (plurality opinion). Each of these statutes, save one, permits a court order to issue in certain cases if visitation is found to be in the best interests of the child. While it is unnecessary for us to consider the constitutionality of any particular provision in the case now before us, it can be noted that the statutes also include a variety of methods for limiting parents' exposure to third-party visitation petitions and for ensuring parental decisions are given respect. Many States limit the identity of permissible petitioners by restricting visitation petitions to grandparents, or by requiring petitioners to show a substantial relationship with a child, or both. See, e.g., Kan. Stat. Ann. § 38-129 (1993 and Supp. 1998) (grandparent visitation authorized under certain circumstances if a substantial relationship exists); N. C. Gen. Stat. §§ 50-13.2, 50-13.2A, 50-13.5 (1999) (same); Iowa Code § 598.35 (Supp. 1999) (same; visitation also authorized for great-grandparents); Wis. Stat. § 767.245 (Supp. 1999) (visitation authorized under certain circumstances for "a grandparent, greatgrandparent, stepparent or person who has maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child"). The statutes vary in other respects-for instance, some permit visitation petitions when there has been a change in circumstances such as divorce or death of a parent, see, e.g., N. H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 458:17-d (1992), and some apply a presumption that parental decisions should control, see, e.g., Cal. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 3104(e)-(f) (West 1994); R. I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-24.3(a)(2)(v) (Supp. 1999). Georgia's is the sole State Legislature to have adopted a general harm to the child standard, see Ga. Code Ann. § 19-7-3(c) (1999), and it did so only after the Georgia Supreme Court held the State's prior visitation statute invalid under the Federal and Georgia Constitutions, see Brooks v. Parkerson, 265 Ga. 189, 454 S. E. 2d 769, cert. denied, 516 U.S. 942 (1995).

In light of the inconclusive historical record and case law, as well as the almost universal adoption of the best interests standard for visitation disputes, I would be hard pressed to conclude the right to be free of such review in all cases is itself " 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.' " Glucksberg, 521 U.S., at 721 (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325 (1937)). In my view, it would be more appropriate to conclude that the constitutionality of the application of the best interests standard depends on more specific factors. In short, a fit parent's right vis-à-vis a complete stranger is one thing; her right vis-à-vis another parent or a de facto parent may be another. The protection the Constitution requires, then, must be elaborated with care, using the discipline and instruction of the case law system. We must keep in mind that family courts in the 50 States confront these factual variations each day, and are best situated to consider the unpredictable, yet inevitable, issues that arise. Cf. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703-704 (1992).

It must be recognized, of course, that a domestic relations proceeding in and of itself can constitute state intervention that is so disruptive of the parent-child relationship that the constitutional right of a custodial parent to make certain basic determinations for the child's welfare becomes implicated. The best interests of the child standard has at times been criticized as indeterminate, leading to unpredictable results. See, e.g., American Law Institute, Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution 2, and n. 2 (Tentative Draft No. 3, Mar. 20, 1998). If a single parent who is struggling to raise a child is faced with visitation demands from a third party, the attorney's fees alone might destroy her hopes and plans for the child's future. Our system must confront more often the reality that litigation can itself be so disruptive that constitutional protection may be required; and I do not discount the possibility that in some instances the best interests of the child standard may provide insufficient protection to the parent-child relationship. We owe it to the Nation's domestic relations legal structure, however, to proceed with caution.

It should suffice in this case to reverse the holding of the State Supreme Court that the application of the best interests of the child standard is always unconstitutional in third-party visitation cases. Whether, under the circumstances of this case, the order requiring visitation over the objection of this fit parent violated the Constitution ought to be reserved for further proceedings. Because of its sweeping ruling requiring the harm to the child standard, the Supreme Court of Washington did not have the occasion to address the specific visitation order the Troxels obtained. More specific guidance should await a case in which a State's highest court has considered all of the facts in the course of elaborating the protection afforded to parents by the laws of the State and by the Constitution itself. Furthermore, in my view, we need not address whether, under the correct constitutional standards, the Washington statute can be invalidated on its face. This question, too, ought to be addressed by the state court in the first instance.

In my view the judgment under review should be vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings.