Skip Maine state header navigation

Agencies | Online Services | Help
Rideout v. Riendeau
Download as PDF
Back to the Opinions page

MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	2000 ME 198
Docket:	Sag-00-4
Argued:	June 5, 2000
Decided:	November 13, 2000

Concurrence:WATHEN, C.J. and RUDMAN, 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.
	[¶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. Keiko's biological father has surrendered his parental rights in
favor of Heaven and Jeffrey.  
	[¶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}
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, 120 S. Ct. 2054 (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, 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, 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."{5}  Id. 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. at 2061.{6}
	[¶9]  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice O'Connor found the
Washington statute unconstitutional.  Id. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. at 2061-62.{8}	
	[¶13]  With these principles in mind, we turn to our analysis of the
Maine Grandparents Visitation Act.

B.  Standard of Review

	[¶14]  The constitutionality of the Grandparents Visitation Act
presents a question of first impression in Maine.{9}  Because the District
Court ruled on the validity of the Act as a matter of law, we review the
court's decision de novo, Estate of Jacobs, 1998 ME 233, ¶ 4, 719 A.2d 523,
524, and we accord no special deference to the review conducted in the
Superior Court.  Pepperman v. Town of Rangeley, 1999 ME 157, ¶ 3, 739
A.2d 851, 852.  Our review is guided by the familiar principle that "[a]
statute is presumed to be constitutional and the person challenging the
constitutionality has the burden of establishing its infirmity."  Kenny v.
Dep't of Human Servs., 1999 ME 158, ¶ 7, 740 A.2d 560, 563 (citation
omitted).  Because we must assume that the Legislature acted in accord
with due process requirements, if we can reasonably interpret a statute
as satisfying those constitutional requirements, we must read it in such a
way, notwithstanding other possible unconstitutional interpretations of
the same statute.  Portland Pipe Line Corp. v. Envtl. Improvement Comm'n,
307 A.2d 1, 15-16 (Me. 1973).
	[¶15]  Our role in reviewing the constitutionality of a statute must
necessarily be limited by the facts in the case before us.  We may not
reach beyond those facts to decide the constitutionality of matters not
yet presented.  United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17, 21-22 (1960); State v.
Gray, 440 A.2d 1062, 1064 (Me. 1982).  We agree with the wisdom of
Justice Brennan, writing for the unanimous Court in Raines, in which he
concluded that an appellate court must be bound by two rules:  "one, never
. . . anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity
of deciding it; the other, never . . . formulate a rule of constitutional law
broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is to be applied." 
Raines, 362 U.S. at 21 (citation omitted).  Hence, we address the
constitutionality of the Act before us in the context of the facts found by
the District Court.

C.  The Act

	[¶16]  The Grandparents Visitation Act was enacted to provide a
forum where certain grandparents could seek access to their
grandchildren.{10}  The Act provides that grandparents will have standing to
bring a petition for visitation only if they demonstrate (1) the death of
one of the parents; (2) a "sufficient existing relationship" with their
grandchildren; or (3) a sufficient effort to sustain a relationship. 19-A
M.R.S.A. § 1803(1) (1998).
	[¶17]  Only subsection 1803(1)(B) of the Act is before us, and we
have no occasion to consider the remaining prongs.{11}  Thus, we do not
address the constitutionality of subsections 1803(1)(A) or 1803(1)(C); we
determine only whether subsection 1803(1)(B), requiring a "sufficient
existing relationship between the grandparent and the child," can be
applied in a manner consistent with the Due Process Clause.
Majority opinion, part 2.

Concurring opinion.

Dissenting opinion.

Attorneys and footnotes.

Back to Opinions page.