August 17, 2001

U.S. Supreme Court: Parents' Rights Are Fundamental

A Review of Troxel v. Granville

On June 5, 2000, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion on parental liberty. The decision was Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). In this case, Jennifer and Gary Troxel petitioned a Washington Superior Court for the right to visit their grandchildren against the wishes of the parents. They used as their authority a section of the Revised Code of Washington which provided that "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 interests of the child, whether or not there has been any change of circumstances." Wash. Rev. Code 26.10.160(3).

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, determining that the Washington statute "unconstitutionally interferes with the fundamental right of parents to rear their children." This decision affirmed the Washington Supreme Court. The Court ruled that "no court has found that Granville was an unfit parent. That aspect of the case is important, for there is a presumption that fit parents act in the best interest of their children." The Court went on to cite their earlier decision of Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 at 602 (1979). The Court explained that this presumption that parents are fit parents means that "so long as the 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 to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent's children."

The error in the Superior Court's decision to grant the petition of visitation to the grandparents was that the court placed on the fit custodial parent the burden of "disproving that visitation would be in the best interests of her daughters." The U.S. Supreme Court held that on the contrary, the grandparent must rebut the presumption that the parent's decision to refuse the grandparent visitation was reasonable and within his or her ability as a fit parent to make the best decisions concerning his children.

The U.S. Supreme Court cited a long history of their decisions upholding parental rights as fundamental.

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." We have long recognized that the Amendment's Due Process Clause, like its Fifth Amendment counterpart, "guarantees more than fair process." Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 719, 138 L. Ed. 2d 772, 117 S. Ct. 2258 (1997). The Clause also includes a substantive component that "provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests." 521 U.S. at 720; see also Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 301-302, 123 L. Ed. 2d 1, 113 S. Ct. 1439 (1993).

The liberty interest at issue in this case--the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children--is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court. More than 75 years ago, in Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399, 401, 67 L. Ed. 1042, 43 S. Ct. 625 (1923), we held that the "liberty" protected by the Due Process Clause includes the right of parents to "establish a home and bring up children" and "to control the education of their own." Two years later, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-535, 69 L. Ed. 1070, 45 S. Ct. 571 (1925), we again held that the "liberty of parents and guardians" includes the right "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control." We explained in Pierce that "the child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations." 268 U.S. at 535. We returned to the subject in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 88 L. Ed. 645, 64 S. Ct. 438 (1944), and again confirmed that there is a constitutional dimension to the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. "It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder." 321 U.S. at 166.

In subsequent cases also, we have recognized the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. See, e.g., Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551, 92 S. Ct. 1208 (1972) ("It is plain that the interest of a parent in the companionship, care, custody, and management of his or her children 'comes to this Court with a momentum for respect lacking when appeal is made to liberties which derive merely from shifting economic arrangements'" (citation omitted)); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 232, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972) ("The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition"); Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255, 54 L. Ed. 2d 511, 98 S. Ct. 549 (1978) ("We have recognized on numerous occasions that the relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected"); Parham v. J. R., 442 U.S. 584, 602, 61 L. Ed. 2d 101, 99 S. Ct. 2493 (1979) ("Our jurisprudence historically has reflected Western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children. Our cases have consistently followed that course"); Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599, 102 S. Ct. 1388 (1982) (discussing "the fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child"); Glucksberg, supra, at 720 ("In a long line of cases, we have held that, in addition to the specific freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, the 'liberty' specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes the right ... to direct the education and upbringing of one's children" (citing Meyer and Pierce)). In light of this extensive precedent, it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.


The U.S. Supreme Court finally held, "Considered together with the Superior Court's reasons for awarding visitation to the Troxels, the combination of these factors demonstrate that the visitation order in this case was an unconstitutional infringement on Granville's fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of her two daughters."

Justice Thomas, in his concurring judgment, indicated that the plurality appropriately recognized a parental liberty. He explained further that strict scrutiny needed to be applied to infringements of these types of fundamental rights.

Parents battling oppressive state regulations and invasions of their families have a clear decision that upholds their parental rights. In essence, this decision means that the government may now not infringe parents' right to direct the education and upbringing of their children unless it can show that it is using the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling governmental interest.