Rideout v. Riendeau

Citation761 A.2d 291,2000 ME 198
PartiesRose RIDEOUT et al. v. Heaven RIENDEAU et al.
Decision Date13 November 2000
CourtMaine Supreme Court

Joseph M. Baldacci (orally), Bangor, for plaintiffs.

Jed J. French (orally), Frances Crary Lindemann, Powers & French, P.A., Freeport, for defendants.

Panel: WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, SAUFLEY, and ALEXANDER, JJ.

SAUFLEY, J.

[¶ 1] We are called upon here to determine whether Maine's Grandparents Visitation Act violates the constitutional rights of competent parents who choose not to have their children visit with their grandparents. We conclude that the Act, as applied to the facts presented to us, is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, and thus does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

[¶ 2] The grandparents before us, Rose and Chesley Rideout, appeal from a judgment entered in the Superior Court (Sagadahoc County, Humphrey, J.) affirming an order of the District Court (West Bath, Field, J.) dismissing their petition for visitation with their grandchildren. The District Court held that the Grandparents Visitation Act, 19-A M.R.S.A. §§ 1801-1805 (1998), violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it does not require a showing of harm to the child before a court can order visitation with a grandparent.1 The court concluded that the "best interest of the child standing by itself is not a compelling state interest." We do not disagree with that conclusion. We conclude, however, that the state does have a compelling interest in providing a forum within which grandparents who have acted as parents to their grandchild may seek continued contact with that child. Thus, we vacate the judgment dismissing the Rideouts' visitation petition and remand for an application of the Act after a new hearing.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶ 3] The underlying procedural and historical facts may be summarized as follows.2 Rose and Chesley Rideout wish to visit with their three grandchildren. The parents of the children do not currently want their children to spend time with the Rideouts. All three children live with their parents, Heaven-Marie Riendeau and Jeffrey Riendeau. Heaven-Marie is the daughter of the Rideouts. The children are Keiko-Marie, now 13 years old (born February 6, 1987); Roman, now 11 years old (born February 16, 1989); and, Mariah, now 7 years old (born June 10, 1993). Jeffrey is the biological father of Mariah and the adoptive father of Roman.

[¶ 4] Heaven was a sixteen-year-old high school student, unmarried, and living at home with the Rideouts when she gave birth to Keiko. During the first seven years of Keiko's life, four years of Roman's life, and several months of Mariah's life, the Rideouts were the children's "primary caregivers and custodians." In Keiko's early years, Rose's significant involvement in caring for Keiko upset Heaven and caused friction between Heaven and Rose. On several occasions, Heaven left Keiko in the sole custody of Rose and signed written powers of attorney for Rose to act as Keiko's legal guardian. Heaven moved first to Massachusetts and then to Bangor for Job Corps training. After she completed her training in 1989, Heaven moved in with her then-husband, Joseph Henderson, and their newborn son, Roman. At Rose's urging, Keiko went to live with her mother and her stepfather. Soon, however, Henderson became violent and abusive, and Heaven and her two children returned to live with the Rideouts.

[¶ 5] In June 1992, Heaven and Jeffrey Riendeau married. Approximately one year later, and about the time of Mariah's birth, Heaven and Jeffrey separated, "primarily because of the tensions caused by Rose's interference in their family unit." At this point, Heaven and the three children again went to live with the Rideouts. Despite returning to live with-her parents, Heaven's relationship with Rose remained strained. After Heaven moved back in with her parents, Rose contacted the Department of Human Services regarding Heaven and Jeffrey's care of the children. Additionally, Rose filed a petition seeking to adopt Keiko. Heaven and the three children left the Rideouts' home near the time Rose contacted the authorities, and Heaven terminated all contact between grandparents and grandchildren after returning to live with Jeffrey. From this point forward, Heaven and Jeffrey appear to have enjoyed a stable home life. The Rideouts filed the instant complaint seeking court-ordered visitation pursuant to the Grandparents Visitation Act, and the parents moved to dismiss on the ground that the Act is unconstitutional.

[¶ 6] The District Court held a combined hearing on the merits and the motion to dismiss. Although the court granted the motion to dismiss, it also undertook to find the facts, and in so doing, determined that the Rideouts had met the statutory criteria and would be entitled to visitation pursuant to the terms of the Act if the Act were constitutional. The court, however, ordered no visitation, concluding that the Act violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.3 The grandparents appealed to the Superior Court without success and now bring their appeal before us.4

II. DISCUSSION
A. Troxel v. Granville

[¶ 7] No analysis of Maine's Grandparents Visitation Act can be undertaken without a review of the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000).

[¶ 8] In Troxel, the Court was called upon to review the constitutionality of the State of Washington's version of a nonparent visitation statute. Troxel, 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2057. The Washington statute is significantly broader than the Maine Act. See WASH. REV. CODE ANN. § 26.10.160(3) (West 1998). The Washington Supreme Court struck down its statute on the basis of the U.S. Constitution, holding that the statute unconstitutionally infringed on the fundamental right of parents to rear their children. Troxel, 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2057. In so holding, the Washington Supreme Court reasoned that the statute required "no threshold showing of harm" and that it allowed "`any person' to petition for forced visitation of a child at `any time' with the only requirement being that the visitation serve the best interest of the child."5Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2058-59 (citations omitted). The contrast of Maine's more tailored Act, which applies only to grandparents and provides a number of protections for parents, is highlighted by Justice O'Connor's description of the Washington statute as one that "effectively permits any third party seeking visitation to subject any decision by a parent concerning visitation of the parent's children to state-court review." Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2061.6

[¶ 9] Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice O'Connor found the Washington statute unconstitutional. Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2065. The plurality found it pivotal that the Washington statute entirely eliminated the parents from the decision-making process, noting that "[o]nce the visitation petition has been filed in court and the matter is placed before a judge, a parent's decision that visitation would not be in the child's best interest is accorded no deference." Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2061 (emphasis added). Indeed, the Washington statute "contains no requirement that a court accord the parent's decision any presumption of validity or any weight whatsoever." Id. (emphasis added). Concluding that the "Due Process Clause does not permit a State to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make childrearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a `better' decision could be made," the Court declared the Washington statute unconstitutional as applied. Id. 530 U.S. at ____, 120 S.Ct. at 2064.

[¶ 10] Although the Troxel plurality found the Washington statute to be unconstitutional because it was "breathtakingly broad," it was careful not to decide matters beyond those that were before it. Id. 530 U.S. at ___, ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2061, 2064. The plurality noted that "[b]ecause much state-court adjudication in this context occurs on a case-by-case basis, we would be hesitant to hold that specific nonparental visitation statutes violate the Due Process Clause as a per se matter." Id. at 2064 (citations omitted). Moreover, given the "sweeping breadth" of the Washington statute, the Troxel plurality was not called upon to engage in a strict scrutiny of the statute. Id. Under no level of scrutiny would the Washington statute be deemed consistent with the concepts embodied in the Due Process Clause.7

[¶ 11] Thus, although the Troxel Court declared the Washington statute unconstitutional, it did so on the limited facts and law before it, leaving for another day a constitutional analysis of statutes with more carefully established protections of parents' fundamental rights.

[¶ 12] The Troxel opinion does, however, provide us with clear guidance on important points. First,

The liberty interest at issue in this case—the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children—is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.

Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2060. The fundamental right of parents to direct the care and upbringing of their children does not disappear in the face of a third party's request for visitation with the children. Second, the best interests of the child standard, standing alone, is an insufficient standard for determining when the State may intervene in the decision making of competent parents. Id. 530 U.S. at ___, 120 S.Ct. at 2061. And finally, because of the "presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children," trial courts must accord special weight to parents' decisions and objections regarding requests for third-party visitation. Id. 530 U.S. at ___ _ ___,...

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