By M.H. Cavanaugh
Christian Action League
April 24, 2015
RALEIGH – A bill that would have provided for an expansion of grandparent’s visitation rights under existing law failed in a Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The vote on HB 413 – Expand Grandparent Visitation Rights resulted in a tie of 6 – 6. Parliamentary procedure requires a majority vote for a motion to succeed.
The conference room in the Legislative Office Building was filled to nearly overflowing with grandparents eager to observe the proceedings. But the failure of the legislation resulted in a number of grandparents demonstrating fits of rage, shouting at Committee Chairs, and physically being removed by the Sargent-at-Arms.
The debate between lawmakers on the committee, however, was civil.
Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) expressed she was an attorney and family law was her area of expertise. Stevens noted the United States Supreme Court had already answered the question of grandparent visitatation rights in Troxel v. Granville. In that case, the High Court affirmed a Washington State Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s third party visitation statute invalid. The Court found the Washington State law was too broad and infringed on the parental rights of autonomy in child rearing.
Stevens also referenced a 1994 North Carolina Supreme Court case, Peterson v. Rogers, which held, “Absent a finding that parents are unfit or have neglected the welfare of their children, the constitutionally protected paramount right of parents to custody, care and control of their children must prevail.” Stevens argued that there was nothing listed in HB 413 to give grandparents a right to sue for visitation that would be deemed “compelling” to give them standing in a court of law.
Stevens demonstrably contended the proposed legislation was clearly unconstitutional and members of the committee were bound by their oaths not to pass laws that violated both the state and federal constitutions.
Rep. Nathan Baskerville (D-Granville) acknowledged the bill was probably unconstitutional. “But this is not the first legislation that this body has passed that was unconstitutional,” he quipped.
Rep. Lee Zachary (R-Alexander) essentially argued the bill could be unconstitutional, but it was necessary to pass such legislation to keep such matters before the courts to determine if new rights might be granted by the courts.
Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick), a primary sponsor of the bill, said the legislature doesn’t decide what is constitutional; instead such matters were the responsibility of the courts.
Iler also took issue with Stevens argument referencing the 1994 North Carolina Supreme Court case, saying grandparents visitation rights has nothing to do with “custody.” To which Stevens would later correctly reply that in legal terms “visitation” is a form of “custody.”
Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Beaufort) said HB 413 was trying to fix a problem government couldn’t fix. He sympathized with the plight of grandparents who were being unjustly kept from seeing their grandchildren; nonetheless, he said government should stay out of the matter.
The Committee also allowed for limited comments from the public. Two grandparents spoke in favor of the bill. Kathy Hartkoph of Hillsborough, a long-time opponent of an expansion of grandparent visitation rights said she had been addressing the issue at the North Carolina General Assembly for 18 years and it was time for lawmakers to put it to rest.
HB 413 was opposed by the North Carolina Family Policy Council, the North Carolina National Organization of Women (NOW), the North Carolina Council for Responsible Parenting, the North Carolina Parents and Grandparents for Better Family Solutions, and the Christian Action League of North Carolina.
Hartkoph also notes that at several of the many committee hearings on the issue over the years, a representative from the North Carolina Court System has spoken in opposition, citing the increased demands such legislation places on already overburdened courts.
“My heart was broken for so many of those grandparents in that committee room,” said Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The emotional pain they feel is unquestionably horrendous. The Legislature has heard again and again, year after year, from these grandparents. But lawmakers haven’t heard from a long line of broken-hearted parents with their tragic stories about the way they were trying to protect their child from problematic grandparents. Their stories would most definitely be told, if a bill like HB 413 ever passed. This bill sought to provide a cure that would really be worse than the disease. In an effort to provide a grandparent with a new right, it would have interfered with good parents’ God-given and unalienable right to determine the course and direction of their children. That’s just too much and it’s wrong.”