In a case involving grandparents from California, the Idaho Supreme Court overturned a law allowing grandparents to seek visitation rights after finding that it unconstitutionally violates the “fundamental right to parent.”
The ruling handed down Friday by the high court said parents have a right to the “custody, care and control” of their children. 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 has been making its way through Idaho courts since 2017, when Dennis and Linda Nelson of Irvine, Calif., asked a magistrate judge to award them visitation with their three granddaughters — then ages 11, 9 and 6, and living in the Coeur d’Alene area.
The girls’ parents, Stephanie and Brian Evans, had cut off contact with the Nelsons, who are Stephanie’s mother and stepfather. Stephanie Evans said her mother was manipulative and frequently violated their parenting boundaries — such as taking the children to Disneyland rather than the more modest outings the parents had requested, and bringing them home after the specified time.
In 2015, the Evanses moved to Idaho, leaving the Irvine home that the grandparents had helped them buy. They terminated all contact between their children and the Nelsons.
After losing their bid for visitation in two lower courts, the Nelsons appealed to Idaho Supreme Court.
The Evanses had argued that the state law allowing grandparent visitation does not apply to families in which the parents are married and living with the children. The high court ruled in 2020 that, though the law is in the “Divorce Actions” category of the Idaho Code, it nevertheless applies in the case of “intact families.” Thus, it said, the Nelsons had the right to seek visitation, and it 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. It also declared that the Evanses were “clearly fit and proper parents.” Still, the court took issue with how the Evanses had 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.
The Evanses, however, asked 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.