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Arkansas Fixes Law That Allowed Anyone — Newborns Included — to Marry

Arkansas' marriage-age crisis is over.

A law that mistakenly allowed anyone — even toddlers — to marry with parental permission was repealed by a measure signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Mike Beebe, ending months of embarrassment for the state and confusion for county clerks.

Lawmakers didn't realize until after the end of last year's regular session that a law they approved, intended to establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage, instead removed the minimum age to marry entirely. An extraneous "not" in the bill, allowed anyone who was not pregnant to marry at any age if the parents allow it.

The bill read: "In order for a person who is younger than eighteen (18) years of age and who is not pregnant to obtain a marriage license, the person must provide the county clerk with evidence of parental consent to the marriage."

An independent commission formed to correct typos and technical errors in bills tried to reverse the mistake, but lawmakers balked. A state judge in October ruled that the Code Revision Commission made a substantive change to the law, and therefore exceeded its authority.

Some lawmakers called for a special session last year, saying the error would make it easy for pedophiles to take advantage of the law. Gov. Mike Beebe said he didn't see any imminent crisis and said the chances of children marrying under the law were slim.

Legislators, however, had the chance for a do-over this week when Beebe convened a special session to consider a hike in the state's severance tax on natural gas. They repealed the botched law, and reinstated 17 as the minimum age to marry for boys and 16 for girls.

Rep. Will Bond, the sponsor of the botched 2007 law and its correction, took plenty of ribbing from colleagues over the bill during the three-day session.

"Mr. Bond, there aren't many times in life you get a second chance," House Speaker Benny Petrus told Bond on the House floor Tuesday. House members approved the repeal moments after Bond apologized for the error and asked his colleagues to "throw me a rope and bail me out here."

"I always thought if you put your name on a bill, you should be ready to take the blame if you're willing to accept the credit," Bond said Wednesday.

Sen. Dave Bisbee had opposed the Code Revision Commission's attempt to restore the extraneous "not," saying that it would constitute a change that went beyond the panel's authority. The commission was formed to correct typos and minor errors in bills.

A state judge later agreed and said the commission had overstepped its bounds. Bisbee later said that he helped arrange the lawsuit that led to the ruling after he was contacted by the father of a groom who was denied a marriage license because the bride was 17.

Despite the ruling, county clerks said they were confused on which law to follow and some said they would send any minors seeking to marry to a judge for approval.

Bisbee said the judge's ruling was a "mild slap on the hands" for the commission since it was not binding statewide, but sent a message that only the Legislature can make significant changes to laws.

Bisbee added, however, that work remains to be done on additional fixes to the state's marriage laws.

"The problem is it's still not really cleared up," Bisbee, R-Rogers, said. "The law we have is still unconstitutional because we have different ages to marry."

Bond, D-Jacksonville, said he's glad to see the law corrected but rejected the idea that it caused any emergency in the state. Bond said there hadn't been any reports of young children attempting to marry under the 2007 law.

"It still required minors to have parental consent to marry. I don't think it was ever a serious crisis," Bond said.