Supreme Court stays out of rights of grandparents Georgia visitation dispute involving grandchildren resembles Maryland case

October 31, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opted yesterday to stay out of the constitutional controversy about grandparents' rights, a dispute that stirs deep emotions across the nation and is nearing a court showdown in Maryland.

In a brief order, the court said it would leave intact a Georgia state court ruling that was one of the most complete defeats yet for grandparents who seek the right to visit grandchildren when the parents object.

Georgia's Supreme Court in March nullified that state's grandparent visitation law, saying it intruded too deeply on the rights of parents to raise their children.

"State interference with parental rights to custody and control of children" will be permitted, the state court said, "only where the health or welfare of the children is threatened."

Without proof of harm to children, the state court ruled, grandparents cannot have a right to visitation over parents' objections.

That case grew out of a conflict in Douglas County, Ga. A grandmother, Elizabeth Parkerson, had disputes with her daughter, Stacy Elizabeth Brooks, some of them over how Ms. Brooks was raising her daughter.

Ultimately, Ms. Brooks and her husband, William, stopped Mrs. Parkerson's contact with their daughter. The grandmother sought to regain visitation rights under a state law adopted in 1976 and later expanded.

Maryland's law appears to be as broad as Georgia's. It gives Maryland courts the power to order grandparent visitation, even if parents object, if the visitation would be in the grandchildren's "best interests."

That law is facing a constitutional challenge in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has been asked to bypass the Special Appeals Court and take on the constitutional dispute itself. It is expected to consider that request late next month.

The Supreme Court's move yesterday was simply a refusal to consider the constitutional dispute, and thus gave no indication of how the justices would react to the Maryland law.

The Maryland law came into play in a dispute between a Salisbury couple, Kita and Jim Stephenson, and her parents, Arnold and Barbara Maner, also of Salisbury. The Stephensons have two children, Katy, age 9, and Trey, 6.

The Maners had contact with their grandchildren, but their relationship with their daughter's family deteriorated over time, according to their daughter, Kita Stephenson. The grandparents sued for the right of visitation.

The Wicomico County Circuit Court turned down the grandparents, saying visitation would not be in the "best interests" of Katy and Trey.

The grandparents have taken the case on to the Court of Special Appeals. In reply to that appeal, the Stephensons are urging the state court to strike down the grandparent visitation law.

"We have been incensed by this," Mrs. Stephenson said in an interview yesterday. "My husband and I do not want to get into any legally binding visitation obligation, with anybody. This is wrong, for many reasons."

The grandparents did not respond to a phone message.

The University of Baltimore School of Law's Family Law Clinic is moving to enter the case to support the parents' constitutional challenge, according to the clinic's director, Associate Professor Jane C. Murphy.

The challenge is based on the parents' claim of a right of privacy in deciding who their children's contacts will be.

Karen Czapanskiy, a University of Maryland law professor who is an expert on family law, said that grandparent visitation disputes have led to a rising number of court cases. The American Association of Retired Persons, she said, has lobbied heavily on the issue.

The professor noted that the rising rate of divorced or unmarried parents has increased grandparents' demands for a fuller role in the rearing of grandchildren.

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