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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a broad Washington state law allowing visitation rights for grandparents and other third parties violated the due process rights of a mother to raise her children as she saw fit. In a rare foray into the field of family law, usually reserved to state courts, the Court was sharply divided in the much anticipated case of Troxel v. Granville. The 6-3 decision produced six separate writings by justices — three in the majority and three in dissent — sapping some of the force of the decision. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in announcing the main opinion from the bench, noted in an aside that, “unfortunately,” the members of this Court were as divided as the parties in the case before the Court. O’Connor wrote that “grandparents play an important role” in raising children in many modern households. But, she added, “So long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e., is fit), there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family.” She stressed that her ruling struck down Washington’s broad visitation law “as applied” to the children of Tommie Granville. Soon after Brad Troxel committed suicide in 1993, his parents Gary and Jenifer Troxel went to court to seek more time with their two grandchildren than the mother was willing to allow. A trial judge agreed that more visitation was in the children’s “best interests,” but the Washington Supreme Court sided with the mother. The state high court said the third party visitation law violates parents’ rights under the U.S. Constitution to decide how to rear their children. O’Connor agreed, asserting that the Washington law is “breathtakingly broad” and that the lower court judge who ordered greater visitation had given “no special weight” to the mother’s determination that less visitation was best for her daughters. But O’Connor was careful to limit the scope of her opinion, asserting that it does not decide “whether the due process clause requires all non-parental visitation statutes to include a showing of harm or potential harm to the child as a condition precedent to granting visitation. We do not, and need not, define today the precise scope of the parental due process right in the visitation context.” O’Connor’s writing, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, was narrow enough that even the AARP, which had filed a brief on the side of the grandparents, was able to proclaim itself pleased. “AARP is gratified that the Supreme Court has proceeded cautiously in deciding this case,” said Cheryl Matheis, AARP’s director of state legislation. “While the Court invalidated the Washington statute, it clearly left the door open for more narrowly drawn grandparent visitation statutes.” A broad range of other groups, ranging from the Christian right to women’s rights groups also applauded the decision. The conservative groups were in the unusual position of embracing a decision that was based on two rulings from the 1920s — Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters — which established the right of parents, not the state, to decide their children’s education. Those rulings were also the constitutional building blocks of Roe v. Wade, which declared women’s right to abortions. “It is clear that the building block of the family is still the parents,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “We are pleased with the Court ruling which represents an important victory for the family unit.” Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, said, “States cannot simply substitute their judgments for a parent’s, simply because a state judge believes a ‘better’ decision could be made.” Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas wrote separately from O’Connor, asserting that the Washington state law was invalid on different reasons. Souter said he would have merely affirmed the Washington Supreme Court ruling without venturing further. Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy each wrote separate dissents. Stevens said “it is indisputably the business of the states” to weigh the conflicting interests in disputes such as the one before the Court. The grandparents’ rights decision came on a busy Court day as the justices headed into their traditional “June crunch,” handing down some of the most contentious decisions before recessing for the summer. Also Monday, the Court: � Ruled in United States v. Hubbell that the Whitewater independent counsel acted improperly in indicting former top Justice Department official Webster Hubbell on tax charges. By an 8-1 vote, the Court agreed with Hubbell that the indictment was based in part on documents he had produced under a grant of immunity in a separate case. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist offered an unusual one-sentence dissent, adopting the reasoning of the dissenting appeals court judge, Stephen Williams, in the case below. � Reversed the 30-year prison sentences of Branch Davidians involved in the confrontation with federal agents in 1993 in Waco, Texas. A jury had determined that the defendants had violated a federal law that adds five years to a prison term if a firearm is used in a crime and 30 years if the firearm is a machine gun. The judge determined that some of the firearms used were machine guns, so he added the 30-year term. But the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Castillo v. United States that the machine gun determination should have been made by the jury as a separate offense. � Ruled 5-4 in an important Social Security case that claimants who go to federal court to appeal the denial of benefits may raise new issues that had not been raised in administrative appeals. Acting in Sims v. Apfel, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that judicial review of an issue is not waived even thought it was not included in an appeal to the Social Security Appeals Council. Justices Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented. � Agreed to rule next term in a telecommunications dispute over rules that keep telephone service inexpensive in high-cost areas. In the case GTE Service Corp. v. FCC, GTE argued that the formula used for determining the subsidies to companies for providing the service was unfair. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recused herself in the case — as she often does in such cases because of her stock investments in telecommunications companies.

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