Leader Blues

Thursday, October 04, 2007

TOP STORY >>Mixup causes confusion for clerks

Leader staff report

A law that mistakenly could allow teenagers to wed has created widespread confusion among Arkansas’ counties, with clerks uncertain when or if they can issue marriage licenses to minors.

The law passed this year inadvertently allows young women under 18 to marry with parental consent if they aren’t pregnant. In most counties, clerks are leaving it up to judges to decide whether a minor should be allowed to wed, pregnant or not.

Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien said last month he’s decided to refer anyone under 18 who requests a marriage license to a judge and said the law as it’s written could conflict with state laws regarding statutory rape.

“Even if they say they’re pregnant, how do we prove that?” O’Brien said. “It becomes more than the ministerial task our office is obligated to perform.”

White County Clerk Tanya Burleson said she has talked to the judges in White County and they have advised her to let them decide if teenagers who are under 18 and pregnant are allowed to marry.

“If you are under the age of 18, I cannot sell a marriage license to you without a court order,” Burleson said.

“I haven’t really had anybody to come in,” said Lonoke County Clerk Dawn Porterfield.

She said until the confusion is remedied, she would expect to issue licenses under the old law. “I would require proof if they were underage and pregnant,” she said.

“I would check with my circuit judge,” she said.

An independent commission corrected the measure and said the obvious intent of the bill was to allow only minors who are pregnant to marry with their parents’ OK, but clerks across the state said they’re waiting on the outcome of a lawsuit that challenges the commission’s authority to change the law.

“I still think the clerks will just have to do what they think is best for their county,” said Faron Ledbetter, the association’s president and Madison County Clerk. Ledbetter said his county is following the revised law, but has recommended that clerks talk with their attorneys or county judges to determine which law to follow.

For many of the counties, that means leaving up to a judge to decide whether a license should be issued. Officials in 22 counties said they’re leaving up to a circuit judge to decide whether to issue a license to anyone under 18.

Only three counties — Cleburne, Desha and Union — said they’re following the law as it was passed by the Legislature, without a minimum age for anyone with parental consent.

Desha County Deputy Clerk Tina Langley said her office hasn’t had to issue a license to anyone under 18 since the law took effect, and said she would have difficulty issuing a license to some minors.

“Right now, the way it’s worded, a 12-year-old could get a license,” Langley said. “Personally I wouldn’t sell it to them. I have children that age and I just won’t do it.”

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel declined to say which law the counties should follow, but his office originally advised the code revision commission it did not have the authority to make the correction.

McDaniel said last month that the law was “awkward at best.”

“We do believe the law as written leads to unreasonable conclusions,” McDaniel said. “There’s no question that this was not what the legislature truly intended. Obviously, it’s ludicrous to think that a clerk is going to allow some 9-year-old to get married.”

Some counties are bypassing both versions of the law. Bradley County Circuit Judge Robert C. Vittitow said he’s told clerks to follow the old law, which set 17 as the minimum marriage age for females and 16 for males.

“I don’t think the old law has been replaced because it’s obviously a mistake. I don’t think you can replace an old law with a new law that’s obviously a mistake,” Vittitow said.

Before July 31, teenage girls could get married in Arkansas with parental consent when they were 16 and boys could get married with parental consent when they were 17.

At 18, they could get married without anyone’s signed consent except their own.

Teenagers under the minimum ages of 16 and 17 have always needed a court order to get married, Burleson said.
So the only real change she sees is that now older teenagers have to go before a judge.

That simplifies the matter for her office, she said. When teenagers under 18 come in for a marriage license she sends them back for proper documentation like a note from the doctor saying the girl is pregnant and when she is due. Then she sends them to a judge.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.