High Court Takes on a Family Affair

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Has the concept of family become so malleable that it should be up to judges to decide who can visit our children? That's what the Supreme Court began deciding Wednesday during opening arguments in a battle for children's visitation rights that pits the paternal grandparents of two little girls against their mother and stepfather. The case hinges on the constitutionality of a Washington State law allowing any adult to petition family courts for visitation rights. Unlike most states, which can order parents to allow such visits only in cases where the parents are unfit or abusive, in Washington the law is unusually broad, allowing petitions even when the parents have done nothing wrong.

Opponents of the law come from such normally at-odds factions as the Christian right and gay rights groups, both of whom have filed court briefs against the Washington law. The former claim the law interferes with the notion of family, while the latter fear it would take autonomy away from gay couples with children. The law's supporters include the AARP, which argues that older people should not be prevented from having a role in their grandchildren's lives. How the Justices will rule is anyone's guess, but the current Supreme Court generally champions states' rights — most recently evidenced in Wednesday's decision that states aren't bound to a 1974 federal law against age discrimination in hiring. And the case at hand is even more local, pitting the states against parents. "In the end each Justice will probably just look at the equities in the issue," says TIME legal writer Adam Cohen. "And they'll probably be reluctant to have the courts impose major limitations on how parents raise their children."