Child marriage is back in the headlines
Circuit Judge Tom Keith
has ruled in Benton County that the state Code Revision Commission had exceeded its authority in cleaning up a statute intended to set a minimum age of 18 for marriage, except in the case of pregnancy and with court approval.
As written, the statute allowed anyone younger than 18 -- pregnant or not -- to marry with parental consent. That was not the intent of the legislation and sponsors prevailed on the Code Revision Commission, which cleans up statutory language before it’s codified into law books, to make the measure read as intended.
A lawsuit brought by former state Rep. Tim Hutchinson,
who practices in Rogers, challenged the breadth of the commission’s work and he said the judge agreed that the commission’s work was not merely a technical correction when it excised an extraneous "not." He notified the parties in a letter.
Hutchinson was directed to prepare a formal order on the ruling. Benton County Clerk Mary Lou Slinkard said she intended to follow henceforth the terms of the judge's order, and that she had no plans to appeal the judge's ruling. The young woman Hutchinson represented is 17 and turns 18 in late December. She is not pregnant, Hutchinson has said. The couple has not applied for a license yet, Slinkard said, but she said she'd turned down an application yesterday by a 17-year-old woman seeking to marry a 31-year-old man.
The attorney general did not intervene in the case to defend the Code Revision Commission’s work. Said A.G. Dustin McDaniel: “I am not surprised by the ruling. Although the ruling of the Benton County Circuit Judge is not binding anywhere else in the state, it would be reasonable for clerks in other counties to follow it. The court said that the act passed by the legislature is controlling and will be until the legislature changes it.”
Precedent or not, the decision further gums up the picture and raises anew the question of whether Gov. Mike Beebe thinks the problem sufficient to call a legislative session for corrective legislation. As Judge Keith reads the law, a child of any age could marry if parents approved. This has given rise to concern about arranged marriages of young women, a practice not unheard of in some foreign cultures.
A spokesman for Beebe said the governor had no further comments just yet. Previously, he has said he didn't believe the situation was dire enough to require a special session. Hutchinson, the winning lawyer, had no comment on what should be done now except that it should be up to the governor and legislature.
This issue had already been clouded in Pulaski County by Circuit Judge Dick Moore’s decision
to approve a marriage license for an underage Saline County male. Moore just decided to allow the marriage to proceed, but didn’t rule on the legality of the Code Revision Commission’s work. It's not clear what authority he found for granting the license, since the bride was reportedly not pregnant (though a reader suggests it could be a separate law allowing males under 18 preparing to report for military duty to have an exemption to age requirements). In Pulaski County, Clerk Pat O'Brien has been referring all underage marriage applicants to judges.