Taking up a high-profile battle between two grandparents and a mother over visiting rights with her young daughters, Supreme Court justices suggested yesterday that they place a great premium on parents' choices in how children are raised and who they will visit.

The emotional case from Washington state arises at a time of increasingly splintered families and is likely to have repercussions nationwide for parents, relatives and other people closely involved in a child's life.

The justices, six of them grandparents themselves, highlighted by their questions the complexity of family relations today, raising scenarios involving great-aunts and distant kin, foster parents and social workers. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, who was reared by his grandparents and is now raising a great-nephew, did not ask questions during the hour-long session.

Catherine Smith, lawyer for the mother who challenged a Washington state court's visitation order, urged the justices to rule that courts may intervene in such family disputes only if a child is at risk. Unless there is some threat of harm, Smith said, parents should be in charge of deciding who spends time with their children and how much.

But the grandparents' lawyer, Mark Olson, told the justices that court-ordered visits for relatives intrude only slightly on a parent's rights and beseeched the court to consider a grandparent's deep bonds with a grandchild.

The case began seven years ago when Tommie Granville objected to the amount of time grandparents Jenifer and Gary Troxel wanted to spend with her daughters after the girls' father died. The Troxels sought visiting rights under a Washington state law, similar to laws in all states, that allows grandparents or any third party to seek time with a child if a judge decides it is in the child's best interest.

The Washington Supreme Court struck down the law in 1998 for infringing on parents' constitutional privacy and liberty interests.

By their questions yesterday, many of the justices suggested that they, too, thought the law is constitutionally flawed. But some of them questioned whether a narrower law, covering only close relatives who have significant relations with a child, could be upheld. The Washington statute, which allows "any one," at "any time," to obtain visitation, is among the more open in the nation.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a grandparent who was unusually active in the give-and-take, noted that a long line of court cases has emphasized parental autonomy. He worried that the Washington law would allow any distant relative to suddenly appear in a child's life and seek time, speculating about a hypothetical great-aunt who would come in and say, "I want to take her to the movies every Friday."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called the statute "breathtakingly broad" and said it would be "very expensive" for parents to have to go to court to defend themselves against such demands. Justice David H. Souter--the only justice without children--said the Washington law appeared available to "anyone walking in off the street," suggesting that a law requiring close ties with a child might be allowed.

Justice Antonin Scalia observed that in numerous cases a child might have a better life if he were not under his parents' roof. But, he asserted, a child "does not belong to the courts," but to the parents. A ruling in the case of Troxel v. Granville is expected by summer.

Court Action

The Supreme Court yesterday:

* Ruled that Congress acted within its powers by requiring that states not disclose personal data on a driver's license. Reno v. Condon, unanimous

* Ruled that people convicted of a crime do not have a constitutional right to refuse a lawyer's help and represent themselves on appeal. Martinez v. Court of Appeal of California , unanimous

* Upheld citizens groups' rights to sue alleged polluters under the Clean Water Act even though damages awarded would be paid to the federal government. Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, 7-2 vote

* Ruled that police can stop and question people because they ran at the sight of a police officer. Illinois v. Wardlow, 5-4 vote

* Debated for the first time the issue of grandparents' rights, expressing doubt about laws allowing grandparents to visit children when parents object. Troxel v. Granville

* In a short, unsigned opinion, revived an affirmative action lawsuit by a Colorado construction company and returned the case to lower courts. Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Slater

SOURCES: Wire and staff reports

CAPTION: Tommie Granville Wynn leaves the Supreme Court with husband, Kelly. She is opposing a court's visitation order in favor of her children's grandparents.