Act 441, passed by the Arkansas General Assembly earlier this year, was titled "An Act . . . To Reconcile Inconsistencies Regarding the Minimum Age to Marry." It reconciled the inconsistencies, all right, by getting rid of the minimum age to marry.
In the latest example of why proofreading is important, the appearance of an extra "not" in the text of the act changes the intended meaning pretty significantly, something that "not" has a tendency to do, I guess. The intent was to amend section 9-11-102 of the Arkansas Code to standardize the minimum age for marriage at 18 (it had previously been 17 for men and 16 for women), but to provide an exception in some cases if the woman was pregnant. But now, the statute reads:
The county clerk may issue a marriage license to a person who is younger than eighteen (18) years of age and who is not pregnant after the county clerk receives satisfactory evidence of parental consent . . . .
Oh, dear. Luckily, the Arkansas Code Revision Commission caught the mistake and removed the "not" before the new code books were printed.
Problem: The ACRC is not the legislature, and while it is allowed to fix minor spelling and grammatical errors, that power does not extend to "not." That was the ruling on October 10, anyway, by Judge Tom Keith of the Benton County Circuit Court, in a case brought by the mother of a 17-year-old woman who was not pregnant but had permission to get married. Since removing "not" was a substantive change, Judge Keith ruled, the legislature has to fix it. Since the legislature adjourned in May, that would require the governor to call it back into session in order to make the change.
Reached for comment, Governor Mike Beebe said he did not yet see a need to call a special session in order to deal with the "not." Inevitably, others disagreed. "We need a special session to fix this," said Sen. Sue Madison, a Democrat. "I am concerned about pedophiles coming to Arkansas to find parents who are willing to sign a very young child's consent." I realize that lines are probably forming right now of parents who can't wait to sign their child over to a pedophile, but maybe there are some other laws on the books that might be able to deal with that concern?
Unless there is a special session, the children of Arkansas will remain at risk until the loophole can be closed in 2009.