Castagno v. Wholean, 15409

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Citation684 A.2d 1181,239 Conn. 336
Decision Date26 November 1996
Docket NumberNo. 15409,15409
PartiesJean T. CASTAGNO, et al., v. Tina WHOLEAN, et al.

Page 1181

684 A.2d 1181
239 Conn. 336
Jean T. CASTAGNO, et al.,
Tina WHOLEAN, et al.
No. 15409.
Supreme Court of Connecticut.
Argued Sept. 24, 1996.
Decided Nov. 26, 1996.

Page 1182

Terry Donovan, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Thomas A. Cloutier, Old Saybrook, with whom, on the brief, was Tina Wholean, for appellees (defendants).


KATZ, Associate Justice.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether, pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-59, 1 the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction to entertain a petition by grandparents for visitation rights with their minor grandchildren when the grandchildren and their parents were not involved in any case or controversy currently before the court and there was no claim that the family unit was no longer intact. We conclude that although [239 Conn. 338] § 46b-59 lacks specific language imposing any threshold requirement, established rules of statutory construction, the context of the statute and its legislative history support the incorporation of a requirement that plaintiffs

Page 1183

must demonstrate disruption of the family sufficient to justify state intervention. In the absence of any attempt by the plaintiffs here to satisfy this threshold requirement, we conclude that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue of visitation and, therefore, properly dismissed the plaintiffs' action. 2 Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The undisputed facts are as follows. Pursuant to § 46b-59, the plaintiffs, Jean and Julius Castagno, parents of the defendant Tina Wholean, brought this action against Wholean and her husband, the defendant William J. Wholean, seeking grandparent visitation with the defendants' minor children. The defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, claiming that because both parents were still alive, and were not currently involved in any court proceedings that might affect the custody of the children, nor in a state of de facto separation, § 46b-59 did not confer any right to visitation upon the plaintiff grandparents. The trial court determined that unless the family unit had been disrupted by death or de facto separation, the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under § 46b-59 and dismissed the plaintiffs' action. The plaintiffs appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant[239 Conn. 339] to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c).

The plaintiffs argue that the trial court misconstrued § 46b-59 to contain threshold requirements not expressed in the plain language of the statute. Specifically, the plaintiffs claim that the application of § 46b-59 is not limited by any threshold requirements, and that the sole criterion for application of the statute is the best interest of the child. Accordingly, the plaintiffs argue that any third party who seeks state intervention, in the form of a court's grant of visitation rights, may petition the court at any time, and need not present any allegations that the minor child's family is no longer intact. The plaintiffs further maintain that, because the language of § 46b-59 is clear and unambiguous, it was inappropriate for the trial court to rely on the legislative history of the statute to establish any threshold requirements. We disagree.

When we set out to interpret the meaning of a statute, "our fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature.... In seeking to discern that intent, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter. M. DeMatteo Construction Co. v. New London, 236 Conn. 710, 714-15, 674 A.2d 845 (1996); see Metropolitan District Commission v. AFSCME, Council 4, Local 184, 237 Conn. 114, 120, 676 A.2d 825 (1996); State v. Burns, 236 Conn. 18, 22-23, 670 A.2d 851 (1996); State v. Spears, 234 Conn. 78, 86-87, 662 A.2d 80, cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 565, 133 L.Ed.2d 490 (1995)." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Conway v. Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 663-64, 680 A.2d 242 (1996). Although we first look to the language of the statute, if the application of the [239 Conn. 340] statute to a particular situation reveals a latent ambiguity or inconsistency, we will go beyond the text to determine the statute's meaning. Id., at 665, 680 A.2d 242. Moreover, we will not limit ourselves to a literal application of the statute if to do so would render other legislation meaningless or superfluous. State v. Szymkiewicz, 237 Conn. 613, 621, 678 A.2d 473 (1996). In addition, if a literal reading would place the statute in constitutional jeopardy, this court will go beyond the face of the statute to determine whether it may be construed so as to "achieve its purpose in a manner which is

Page 1184

both effective and constitutional." Moscone v. Manson, 185 Conn. 124, 128, 440 A.2d 848 (1981).

Reading the statute literally, as the plaintiffs would have us do, § 46b-59 allows any person, under any circumstances, to petition the court for visitation rights, no matter how remote his or her connection to the child. It is only after the matter is brought before the court that he or she would have to show that such visitation would be in the best interest of the child. Such a construction would be a radical departure from the common law and from the deeply ingrained tradition of family autonomy in such matters, would raise serious concerns about the effect of the statute on intact families and the constitutionally protected privacy interests of those families, and would ignore companion statutes that would be made superfluous by its application. We therefore construe the statute to avoid such an unreasonable interpretation. State v. Burns, supra, 236 Conn. at 27, 670 A.2d 851; see also State v. DeFrancesco, 235 Conn. 426, 437, 668 A.2d 348 (1995); State v. Spears, supra, 234 Conn. at 92, 662 A.2d 80.

We begin with the common law background against which the visitation statutes were enacted. At common law, grandparents, or third parties in general, have no right to visitation. Rather, the decision as to who may or may not have access to a minor child has been deemed an issue of parental prerogative. M. Quintal, [239 Conn. 341] "Court-Ordered Families: An Overview of Grandparent Visitation Statutes," 29 Suffolk U.L.Rev. 835 (1995); see also C. Bostock, "Does the Expansion of Grandparent Visitation Rights Promote the Best Interests of the Child?: A Survey of Grandparent Visitation Laws in the Fifty States," 27 Colum.J.L. & Soc.Probs. 319, 326 (1994). 3 The common law reflects the belief that the family unit should be respected, and its autonomy and privacy invaded through court action only in the most [239 Conn. 342] pressing circumstances. "That right [of the parents to determine the care, custody, and control of their children] is recognized

Page 1185

because it reflects a strong tradition founded on the history and culture of Western civilization, and because the parental role is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 503 n. 12, 97 S.Ct. 1932, 1938 n. 12, 52 L.Ed.2d 531 (1977). 4 All families may have, at one time [239 Conn. 343] or another, unhappy conflicts and disputes among adult relatives that might result in an absence of contact between those adults and their minor relatives--be they grandchildren, nieces or nephews, cousins, etc.--but longstanding tradition holds that, absent compelling circumstances justifying some state intervention in the form of a judicial order, the parents' decision, whether wise or not, prevails.

The plaintiffs concede that the common law of Connecticut does not provide for grandparent visitation. The plaintiffs also acknowledge the common-law right in Connecticut of parents to raise their children without excessive government interference. "This right to family integrity includes 'the most essential and basic aspect of familial privacy--the right of the family to remain together without the coercive interference of the awesome power of the state.' " In re Juvenile Appeal (83-CD), 189 Conn. 276, 284, 455 A.2d 1313 [239 Conn. 344] 1983). "It is an established rule of statutory construction that statutes are not readily interpreted as abrogating common-law rights." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Nugent, 199 Conn. 537, 548, 508 A.2d 728 (1986). The plaintiffs' interpretation of § 46b-59 would abrogate that right entirely. Given the tradition of parental authority over family matters and the common-law background that it expresses, we are hesitant to read statutory language literally so as to abrogate it entirely, without convincing evidence that the language

Page 1186

was intended to do so. There is no such evidence here. Indeed, what evidence there is before us is to the contrary.

The right to family autonomy and privacy acknowledged in the common law has been recognized as so fundamental as to merit constitutional protection. Consequently, any legislation affecting it is strictly scrutinized. See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 220-21, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 1535-36, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35, 45 S.Ct. 571, 573-74, 69 L.Ed. 1070 (1925); Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399-400, 43 S.Ct. 625, 626-27, 67 L.Ed. 1042 (1923); McGaffin v. Roberts, 193 Conn. 393, 400, 479 A.2d 176 (1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1050, 105 S.Ct. 1747, 84 L.Ed.2d 813 (1985). 5 We ordinarily read statutes "to avoid, rather than to create, constitutional questions." In re Valerie D., 223 Conn. 492, 534, 613 A.2d 748 (199...

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