Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Wedding – 'not'

A Fayetteville girl, her fiancé and her mother have sued to enforce the strict wording of a botched act of the legislature that would let children of any age marry as long as the parents consented. Now a judge will determine whether the law is the crazy version outlined in one inept sentence or the cleaned-up version of the Code Revision Commission.

That is what courts are for. The question needs to be quickly dispelled because amid the confusion county clerks are beginning to take the law into their own hands. One clerk said Friday she was just ignoring the whole law and following the old law, although that would seem to be the one thing a clerk should not do. That law was repealed. It made 17 the legal marrying age for girls and 18 for boys.

Meantime, there is no call for the governor to summon the legislature back to the Capitol to take the wandering word “not” out of the sentence. A legislative session requires a minimum of three days and it is not cheap. That may have to be done if the Arkansas Supreme Court rules that the errant “not” is indeed the law.

The sponsors of the legislation, introduced at the request of judges, intended to make the marrying age uniform at 18 because the gender distinction probably made the old law a violation of the equal-protection clause of the United States Constitution. An exception would be if the girl under 18 was pregnant and she had the consent of her parents to marry. The effect of the extra word was to allow children of any age to marry.

Tim Hutchinson of Lowell, a former state representative, filed the suit to force the Washington County clerk to issue a marriage license to the couple. Following the cleaned-up version of the law, the clerk refused.

Hutchinson said the legislature should meet to change the law because the Code Revision Commission has authority only to correct typographical and punctuation errors and that its deletion of the word “not” set a bad precedent.

But a typographical error is precisely what the stray “not” is. The word makes the rest of the act nonsense. A well established rule of common law is that courts interpret a law as best they can to make all the parts of the law fit.

If the law is that a girl “not pregnant” can be married at any age, as the botched sentence says, then the following language that sets out in detail how a pregnant girl can go about getting married would make no sense. You must assume — and the courts are obliged to make the assumption, too — that the legislators intended to make some sense when they enacted the law.

Gov. Beebe is right. Save the taxpayers some money and let the legislature lie doggo while the courts explain how the law works.