Don't Talk to Strangers — or Your Grandma

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Do grandparents have a legal right to see their grandchildren? That's one of the latest issues facing the six grandparents (and the three non-grandparents) on the United States Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the Justices agreed to decide the constitutionality of a Washington state law allowing grandparents to see their grandchildren with or without the approval of the children’s parents. At issue, says TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders, is whether the law, rejected last year by the Washington state supreme court, violates parents' right to rear their children without government interference, which is a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment. Also under the microscope: the modern definition of "family" and its many current forms. The Washington case concerns an unmarried father who committed suicide, leaving his two daughters to be adopted by the man their mother subsequently married. The girls’ paternal grandparents were denied access to their grandchildren, so they are taking the girls’ mother and adoptive father to court.

The Supreme Court’s ruling will carry wide-reaching implications not only for adoptive families but also for those embroiled in divorce. If one parent (most often the mother) is granted sole custody of a couple’s children, do the father’s parents have a right to visit the kids? Few would argue against a loving relationship with grandparents, but what happens when the custodial parent is worried that visits with grandparents could lead to "off-the-clock" interaction with the other parent? Somewhat lost, as often happens in these types of cases, are the children caught in the middle. While the language of the law is unambiguous in terms of children’s welfare — visitations must "serve the best interest of the child" — the competing interests of parents and grandparents seem bound to further obscure the core of this well-meaning but often ignored phrase. Parents, grandparents — and children — everywhere will be anxious to hear the court's decision, expected by next summer.