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Court blocks grandparents again

The state high court agrees with the trial judge that it was too late for a grandmother to intervene in the case.

By Associated Press
Published January 16, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday for parents in a generational tug of war over a child, marking the court's fifth decision since 1996 that laws letting grandparents seek court-ordered visitation are unconstitutional.

In different cases, the court has ruled that various provisions violate the privacy rights of parents to raise their children without interference from grandparents or the state.

Unless visitation is needed to protect a child from harm, it's unconstitutional to order it, the Supreme Court ruled again Thursday. The law, however, falls short of that "compelling" standard and refers only to a child's "best interest."

The latest dispute involved a son born in 1999 to unmarried parents. The baby's mother, Frances Adrienne Sullivan, brought a paternity suit against Landon Cole Sapp in Madison County, east of Tallahassee.

Paternity was established in March 2001 but the case was still in the trial court when Sullivan was killed in a car wreck that July. Sapp took custody of the toddler. Sullivan's mother, Elizabeth Sullivan, tried to intervene to get visitation.

The trial judge denied her motion and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld that decision. The Supreme Court agreed Thursday with the 1st DCA.

In the majority opinion, Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote that the trial judge was right in determining that it was too late for the grandmother to intervene because the substantive issues in the paternity case - including visitation - had been settled.

All seven justices agreed on that point. But Lewis also said it was proper to rule on the constitutional issues, a point that split the court 4-3. Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead and Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince agreed with Lewis. Justices Raoul Cantero, Charles Wells and Kenneth Bell dissented.

In an opinion supported by the other two dissenting justices, Cantero wrote that the high court considered the constitutional question needlessly, since the dispute was settled when the justices agreed the grandmother could not intervene because of timing.

The grandmother's attorney, George Reeves, said the ruling was disappointing, arguing that "very limited grandparent visitation would be appropriate constitutionally."

[Last modified January 16, 2004, 01:33:00]

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