What visiting rights do grandparents have?
March 13, 2000 (Palo Alto, Calif.) -- All that Gary and Jenifer Troxel
wantedwas to watch their granddaughters grow up -- to see them on holidays
andweekends and even a couple of weeks in the summertime.
All that Tommie Granville Wynn wanted was to get on with her life and create
a new family for her two daughters after her partner, their father, committed
Unfortunately, Tommie's partner was Gary and Jenifer's son.
And the ensuing seven-year battle between the grandparents, Gary and Jenifer
Troxel, and the mother, Tommie Granville Wynn, has led to a landmark lawsuit,
now before the U.S. Supreme Court, that raises tough questions about the limits
of parenting and grandparenting.
At issue is the constitutionality of a far-reaching Washington state law
allowing "any person at any time" to petition the court for the right
to visit a child, even if the parents object.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist put it best: "To what extent can a court
intervene on parents when there is no harm to the children?" he asked
during oral arguments, which took place on Jan. 12. "Does this mean a
great-aunt can come in and say, 'I want to take them to the movies every
"At its core, the legal question is how to balance parents' basic and
comprehensive authority over children and the state's right to interfere,"
says Carol Sanger, a professor of family law at Columbia University.
"This has become a legal question, when in many ways it's a question of
family dynamics," she adds. "In my view, any time you have to resort to
the courts for such a decision the family is already in big trouble."
The Test Case: Complex and Unclear
Indeed, the facts in Troxel v. Granville are complex.
Brad Troxel and Tommie Granville never married but lived together in Skagit
County, north of Seattle. They had two daughters -- Natalie, now 10 years old,
and Isabelle, now 7 -- before separating in 1991, before Isabelle was born.
Brad went to live with his parents in nearby Mount Vernon, Wash., where the
girls visited regularly.
Two years later, everything changed.
Brad, who suffered from chronic depression, committed suicide. Later that
year, Tommie married Kelly Wynn, a local businessman with two children of his
own. Wynn adopted Natalie and Isabelle; Tommie also had three children from a
previous marriage. Then Tommie got pregnant. Suddenly, the brood numbered
During the stressful time of building a new family, Tommie cut back the
Troxels' visits with Natalie, then 3, and Isabelle, then 18 months, to one day
a month. In a brief later filed with the Supreme Court, Tommie said she asked
the Troxels "to respect her efforts to nurture" her new family.
Instead, they pressed for overnight visits every other weekend plus holidays
and two weeks in the summer.