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Troxel v. Granville/Concurrence Souter

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Justice Souter, concurring in the judgment.

I concur in the judgment affirming the decision of the Supreme Court of Washington, whose facial invalidation of its own state statute is consistent with this Court's prior cases addressing the substantive interests at stake. I would say no more. The issues that might well be presented by reviewing a decision addressing the specific application of the state statute by the trial court, ante, at 9-14, are not before us and do not call for turning any fresh furrows in the "treacherous field" of substantive due process. Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 502 (1977) (opinion of Powell, J.).

The Supreme Court of Washington invalidated its state statute based on the text of the statute alone, not its application to any particular case. [1] Its ruling rested on two independently sufficient grounds: the failure of the statute to require harm to the child to justify a disputed visitation order, In re Smith, 137 Wash. 2d, 1, 17, 969 P.2d 21, 29 (1998), and the statute's authorization of "any person" at "any time" to petition and to receive visitation rights subject only to a free-ranging best-interests-of-the-child standard, id., at 20-21, 969 P.2d, at 30-31. Ante, at 4. I see no error in the second reason, that because the state statute authorizes any person at any time to request (and a judge to award) visitation rights, subject only to the State's particular best-interests standard, the state statute sweeps too broadly and is unconstitutional on its face. Consequently, there is no need to decide whether harm is required or to consider the precise scope of the parent's right or its necessary protections.

We have long recognized that a parent's interests in the nurture, upbringing, companionship, care, and custody of children are generally protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399, 401 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 232 (1972); Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978); Parham v. J. R., 442 U.S. 584, 602 (1979); Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753 (1982); Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720 (1997). As we first acknowledged in Meyer, the right of parents to "bring up children," 262 U.S., at 399, and "to control the education of their own" is protected by the Constitution, id., at 401. See also Glucksberg, supra, at 761 (Souter, J., concurring in judgment).

On the basis of this settled principle, the Supreme Court of Washington invalidated its statute because it authorized a contested visitation order at the intrusive behest of any person at any time subject only to a best-interests-of-the-child standard. In construing the statute, the state court explained that the "any person" at "any time" language was to be read literally, at 137 Wash. 2d, at 10-11, 969 P.2d, at 25-27, and that "[m]ost notably the statut[e] do[es] not require the petitioner to establish that he or she has a substantial relationship with the child," id., at 20-21, 969 P.2d, at 31. Although the statute speaks of granting visitation rights whenever "visitation may serve the best interest of the child," Wash. Rev. Code § 26.10.160(3) (1994), the state court authoritatively read this provision as placing hardly any limit on a court's discretion to award visitation rights. As the court understood it, the specific best-interests provision in the statute would allow a court to award visitation whenever it thought it could make a better decision than a child's parent had done. See 137 Wash. 2d, at 20, 969 P.2d, at 31 ("It is not within the province of the state to make significant decisions concerning the custody of children merely because it could make a 'better' decision"). [2] On that basis in part, the Supreme Court of Washington invalidated the State's own statute: "Parents have a right to limit visitation of their children with third persons." Id., at 21, 969 P.2d, at 31.

Our cases, it is true, have not set out exact metes and bounds to the protected interest of a parent in the relationship with his child, but Meyer's repeatedly recognized right of upbringing would be a sham if it failed to encompass the right to be free of judicially compelled visitation by "any party" at "any time" a judge believed he "could make a 'better' decision" [3] than the objecting parent had done. The strength of a parent's interest in controlling a child's associates is as obvious as the influence of personal associations on the development of the child's social and moral character. Whether for good or for ill, adults not only influence but may indoctrinate children, and a choice about a child's social companions is not essentially different from the designation of the adults who will influence the child in school. Even a State's considered judgment about the preferable political and religious character of schoolteachers is not entitled to prevail over a parent's choice of private school. Pierce, supra, at 535 ("The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. 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"). It would be anomalous, then, to subject a parent to any individual judge's choice of a child's associates from out of the general population merely because the judge might think himself more enlightened than the child's parent. [4] To say the least (and as the Court implied in Pierce), parental choice in such matters is not merely a default rule in the absence of either governmental choice or the government's designation of an official with the power to choose for whatever reason and in whatever circumstances.

Since I do not question the power of a State's highest court to construe its domestic statute and to apply a demanding standard when ruling on its facial constitutionality, [5] see Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 55, n. 22 (1999) (opinion of Stevens, J.), this for me is the end of the case. I would simply affirm the decision of the Supreme Court of Washington that its statute, authorizing courts to grant visitation rights to any person at any time, is unconstitutional. I therefore respectfully concur in the judgment.


^ . The Supreme Court of Washington made its ruling in an action where three separate cases, including the Troxels', had been consolidated. In re Smith, 137 Wash. 2d 1, 6-7, 969 P.2d 21, 23-24 (1998). The court also addressed two statutes, Wash. Rev. Code § 26.10.160(3) (Supp. 1996) and former Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.240 (1994), 137 Wash. 2d, at 7, 969 P.2d, at 24, the latter of which is not even at issue in this case. See Brief for Petitioners 6, n. 9; see also ante, at 2. Its constitutional analysis discussed only the statutory language and neither mentioned the facts of any of the three cases nor reviewed the records of their trial court proceedings below. 137 Wash. 2d, at 13-21, 969 P.2d, at 27-31. The decision invalidated both statutes without addressing their application to particular facts: "We conclude petitioners have standing but, as written, the statutes violate the parents' constitutionally protected interests. These statutes allow any person, at any time, to petition for visitation without regard to relationship to the child, without regard to changed circumstances, and without regard to harm." Id., at 5, 969 P.2d, at 23 (emphasis added); see also id., at 21, 969 P.2d, at 31 ("RCW 26.10.160(3) and former RCW 26.09.240 impermissibly interfere with a parent's fundamental interest in the care, custody and companionship of the child" (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)).

^ . As Justice O'Connor points out, the best-interests provision "contains no requirement that a court accord the parent's decision any presumption of validity or any weight whatsoever. Instead, the Washington statute places the best-interest determination solely in the hands of the judge." Ante, at 8.

^ . Cf. Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 71 (1999) (Breyer, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) ("The ordinance is unconstitutional, not because a policeman applied this discretion wisely or poorly in a particular case, but rather because the policeman enjoys too much discretion in every case. And if every application of the ordinance represents an exercise of unlimited discretion, then the ordinance is invalid in all its applications").

^ . The Supreme Court of Washington invalidated the broadly sweeping statute at issue on similarly limited reasoning: "Some parents and judges will not care if their child is physically disciplined by a third person; some parents and judges will not care if a third person teaches the child a religion inconsistent with the parents' religion; and some judges and parents will not care if the child is exposed to or taught racist or sexist beliefs. But many parents and judges will care, and, between the two, the parents should be the ones to choose whether to expose their children to certain people or ideas." 137 Wash. 2d, at 21, 969 P.2d, at 31 (citation omitted).

^ . This is the pivot between Justice Kennedy's approach and mine.