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Relative Power

What visiting rights do grandparents have?

WebMD Feature

March 13, 2000 (Palo Alto, Calif.) -- All that Gary and Jenifer Troxel wanted was to watch their granddaughters grow up -- to see them on holidays and weekends 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 suicide.

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 Friday'?"

"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.