BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Supreme Court has overturned a law allowing grandparents to seek visitation rights after finding that it unconstitutionally violates the “fundamental right to parent.”
In the ruling handed down Friday, the high court said parents have a fundamental right to maintain family relationships and to the “custody, care and control” of their children. But the Idaho state law “seemingly allows grandparents to seek visitation over the objection of fit parents,” Justice John Stegner wrote for the unanimous court. That makes the visitation law unconstitutional, the court found.
The case arose in 2017 after Dennis and Linda Nelson asked a magistrate judge to award them visitation with their grandchildren after the grandchildren's parents, Brian and Stephanie Evans, cut off contact. Neither attorneys for the Nelsons nor the Evanses immediately responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
But the family members' relationship had been full of strife for some time, in part because the grandmother strongly objected to the parent's marriage — resulting in no communication between the two sides for nearly a year — and in part because the Evanses felt the grandmother was manipulative and repeatedly violated their boundaries.
The Nelsons and Evanses also had disputes over a jointly owned California home and over the Evanses' decision to move to Idaho, according to the ruling. The discord continued when it came to childrearing, with the grandparents taking the grandchildren on extravagant playdates to places like Disneyland and frequently returning the children home later than had been requested. The Evanses said the grandparents frequently showed up even though they hadn't been invited, and that they used emotional manipulation and pressuring tactics to get what they wanted.
“Stephanie and Brian asked the Nelsons to refrain from spending so much money and to instead go on more simple playdates such as to parks; however, these requests were frequently ignored,” Stegner wrote. “The Nelsons seemed intent on spoiling the grandchildren contrary to the expressed wishes of the Evanses.”
The lower court where the case began ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the Nelsons lacked the legal standing to seek visitation. The grandparents appealed and lost at the district court level, and appealed again to the Idaho Supreme Court. In 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court found that state law did give the Nelsons the right to seek visitation rights and bounced the case back to the lower court.
Last year, the lower court acknowledged that the grandparents had inserted themselves into the Evans family to an “exorbitant” extent, and that the grandmother's behavior had undermined the parents in the eyes of the children. Still, the lower court took issue with how the Evans family severed their children's relationship with the grandparents, saying they may not have sufficiently explained their concern to the grandparents before cutting off ties.
“Despite finding the Nelsons had harmed the grandchildren by acting in the way that they had, the magistrate court then ordered visitation,” as long as the grandparents first underwent counseling, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the Evans family filed a motion asking the court to find the visitation law unconstitutional. They argued the law did not serve any compelling state interest and that it allowed fit parents to be hauled into court by overzealous grandparents.
The high court agreed that the law was unconstitutional, and noted the toll the case had placed on the Evans family — including more than $50,000 worth of legal bills.
“The Nelsons’ conduct in this case has placed a significant financial and emotional strain on Stephanie and Brian, and likely their three daughters as well,” Stegner wrote.
Sending the case back to the magistrate court would just result in additional litigation, the Supreme Court justices found, and so they dismissed the visitation case outright.