Arkansas Lawmakers to Repeal Child Marriage Provision

Rep. Will Bond backed the legislation last year that mistakenly allowed anyone — even toddlers — to marry in Arkansas with parental consent. This week he's asking for a do-over.

Bond has filed a bill to be considered in this week's special session that will repeal a law he sponsored that he hoped would clarify the state's marriage laws. But a typo in the law not found until after it was signed into law embarrassed legislators and confused clerks.

"I wish it had never happened, but I'm glad we're having the opportunity to fix it," said Bond, D-Jacksonville. "If anything good has come out of this process, it's kind of shined a light on the way our marriage age statutes are drafted."

The marriage age law, which took effect July 31, was intended to establish 18 as the minimum age to marry while also allowing pregnant minors to marry with parental consent. An extraneous "not" in the bill, however, allows anyone who is 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 legislators called on Gov. Mike Beebe to hold a special session to correct the error, saying pedophiles would try to use the botched law to their benefit. But Beebe resisted and said that that no imminent crisis existed.

"The Jay Lenos and those folks are going to have fun with any piece of legislation, and it just so happened we happened to be the brunt of this one," Beebe said last year. "Nobody likes to be the brunt of it, but we're going to protect our children and we're not going to do anything that puts them in danger."

Rather than try again with raising the minimum marriage age, Bond said he was urged to keep the fix simple. The proposal, filed Thursday, will repeal last year's law and return the minimum marriage age to 17 for boys and 16 for girls. The lawmaker said he filed it as early as possible to give his colleagues time to vet the proposal carefully.

"There's been a lot of eyes on it. We want to give everybody plenty of time to take a look at this and make sure everything's OK," Bond said.

Beebe included the marriage age issue on the call for the special session, which begins Monday, after legislative leaders assured him there would be enough support for the measure and it would not be controversial. Beebe called the session primarily to consider raising the state's severance tax on natural gas production to pay for highway improvements.

"I'm glad that he put that on the call and maybe this will allay any fears of people who thought that if we don't change it we'll have 12 years olds marrying. I think this will clear that up," Senate President Jack Critcher said.

County clerks say repealing the law will clear up confusion that was created after the error was noticed last year. Clerks throughout the state were enforcing and interpreting the law differently, with many counties asking judges to approve marriage licenses issued to anyone under 18.

"It just takes us back to the way the law was for years," Madison County Clerk Faron Ledbetter said. "It gives us a clear guide assuming it passes in a special session and a clear law we can follow."