LITTLE ROCK – An error in a new law that allows Arkansans of any age — even toddlers — to marry with parental consent must be fixed by lawmakers, not an independent commission authorized to correct typos, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The 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 with if the parents allow it.
Gov. Mike Beebe has declined to call lawmakers into special session to clear up the error, saying there is no imminent crisis. Instead, he said the Arkansas Code Revision Commission, which is authorized to correct typos and technical errors, could make the change.
A woman who gave her 17-year-old daughter permission to marry based on the old law, which set the minimum marriage age at 17 for boys and 16 for girls, sued in Benton County after officials there denied her a marriage license.
In a decision Wednesday, Circuit Judge Tom J. Keith ruled the commission overstepped its authority because it changed the meaning of the law. He said the marriage license should be issued.
Attorney Timothy Hutchinson, a former Republican state representative who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 17-year-old's family, had said it was appropriate for a judge to step in after Beebe decided a special session wasn't necessary to fix the law.
"I think this recognized the appropriate role of the code revision commission and preserved the integrity of the legislative process and thus public involvement of the changing of our laws," Hutchinson said.
Beebe's office said the governor was reviewing the order but did not have any plans to call a special session to correct the error.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he was not surprised by the ruling and suggested that clerks follow the court's order. McDaniel did not say whether he believed lawmakers should correct the error before the 2009 legislative session.
Sen. Sue Madison, chairwoman of the code revision commission, said the panel does not have any plans to meet to undo the correction. Madison said she was disappointed that the commission did not have an opportunity to defend its revision of the law.
"I think this issue needs resolving once and for all. I felt like the commission had done its job and had acted responsibly to fix an error, but the judge has thrown the issue open again," said Madison, D-Fayetteville. "I think it's deplorable and it's embarrassing."