The Supreme Court wimps out on grandparents rights

The justices reveal themselves to be as knotted as a family in the throes of emotional strife.


Damien Cave
June 7, 2000 11:51PM (UTC)

Seven months ago, I wrote a story for Salon Mothers Who Think about court-mandated visits with my grandparents -- about the prickly dynamics and the ultimate joy that comes from developing a relationship with non-parental figures. So it was with shock, curiosity and finally satisfaction that I read about Monday's Supreme Court ruling that found that a Washington state law went too far in permitting grandparents to win visitation rights over a mother's objection.

Because the case might have been my own, I was at first appalled that the court condemned the rights my grandparents had won, declaring that parents have a "fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control" of their children.

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Upon further inspection, however, I realized that this strongly worded statement belies the decision's nuance. Ultimately, the case reveals a court as knotted as any family in the throes of emotional strife. The vote went 6-3, but lacked a single rationale. It stopped short of declaring the Washington law unconstitutional, ruling only on the case at hand and thus leaving the laws of 49 other states intact.

In a chamber known for thunderous decisions -- indeed dedicated to them -- such restraint is nothing less than remarkable. Defending parental rights, but allowing for case-by-case wiggle room, the court revealed itself to be refreshingly cognizant of divorce's multiple personalities and of the unintended joys that can come from legally mandated time with people outside the sphere of conception and birth. Perhaps parents, grandparents and everyone else who deals with divorce can learn from their example.

But it won't be easy. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority that "the demographic changes of the past century make it difficult to speak of an average American family," but forget "average" -- it's much harder to find, define and create a healthy family, which is what divorce forces families to do. With this decision, it's as if the court has simply decided to wish us luck. If my story is any guide, we'll need it.

Read Damien Cave's original story.


Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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