PHOENIX — Saying 18 is plenty young enough, a Scottsdale lawmaker wants to repeal existing Arizona laws that allow children of any age to get married.
The proposal by Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita would make it illegal for the clerk of superior courts in any of the state’s 15 counties to issue a marriage license to anyone younger than 18. Specifically, HB 2006 would undo laws that allow anyone 16 or 17 to marry with permission of a parent.
But the measure also addresses the fact that in Arizona there actually is no minimum age. All it takes is permission of a superior court judge.
“Why do we need to allow underage marriages to happen?” Ugenti-Rita asked. “What is the public benefit to that?”
If she can get her bill heard, Arizona would join a growing number of states looking at whether laws that may date back to territorial days make any sense. But the record also shows that Ugenti-Rita may have an uphill fight.
While most states set the age of marriage at 18, the Tahirih Justice Center which works to stop violence against women, reports more than half are like Arizona. Their laws not only allow for exceptions but do not even have a “floor” age.
The record on changing that is mixed.
New York earlier this year changed its laws to make 17 the absolute minimum, up from 14. Lawmakers in New Jersey voted for a measure similar to what Ugenti-Rita is proposing. But that was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
And efforts to set the minimum age in California at 18 faltered this year amid opposition from several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center of California.
Ugenti-Rita, however, argues that there’s no legitimate reason to allow such nuptials.
“I don’t see why waiting 12 months or 24 months interferes with your ability to have a life together or marry,” she said. Nor does she believe that the parental consent requirement is meaningful.
“The exceptions don’t make sense anymore,” she said.
Ugenti-Rita also pointed out that those younger than 18 can’t buy cigarettes, even with a note from their mom or dad. And the legal purchase and use of alcohol is reserved to those 21 and older, no matter what a parent says.
“So we clearly recognize that age is a big factor in being able to comprehend the magnitude of a choice and being mature enough to make a certain choice,” she said.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee through which her legislation likely would have to pass, said he hasn’t considered the question. But Farnsworth said simply making marriage off-limits to those younger than 18 raises a series of questions.
One is the fact that Arizona law already allows teens 16 and older to become legally “emancipated,” freeing them from parental oversight and giving them many of the same legal rights as an adult, including the right to contract, incur debts and even to sue and be sued.
It’s also legal for teens to have an abortion with either parental or court permission.
And there’s something else: Arizona repealed its laws against cohabitation more than a decade ago.
But Ugenti-Rita brushed aside questions of whether her legislation could then lead to teens living together without being married. She said that’s no reason for Arizona to provide “recognized status” to couples where one or both is a minor.
Conversely, Ugenti-Rita said there are definite drawbacks. “I think child marriage lends itself to some real problems,” she said. “Those who are marrying before they are 18 are at an increased risk of physical or sexual violence, coercion, other economic complications.”
Nor does she believe a pregnancy should change the equation. Ugenti-Rita said she sees no reason where a delay in being wed, even in those situations, would cause more harm than being legally tied to someone else as a teen.
There is no statewide figure of how many teens younger than 18 wed each year in Arizona, as these are issued by court clerks in each of the state’s 15 counties.
An analysis done for Capitol Media Services by the Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court found that 570 minors received marriage license in a five-year period ending June 23, 2017. The actual number of licenses is slightly less, at 524, as some went to couples where both were minors.
That’s out of about 20,000 licenses issued each year.
And Aaron Nash, the agency’s special counsel, said that in all cases examined, all the minors were either 16 or 17 years old.
As to the political future of the legislation, Ugenti-Rita said she’s undeterred by the record elsewhere. “I understand Christie vetoed the bill,” she said of what happened in New Jersey, “but they obviously got it out of the Legislature.”
And she said the issue is coming before lawmakers in other states.
“So people are reassessing whether this is something that needs to continue in the United States,” she said.
The ability to marry younger than 16 in Arizona is not absolute.
Before providing authorization, state law spells out that a judge must require both parties to complete premarital counseling. But there is an exception if the court determines such counseling “is not reasonably available.”
There also needs to be a finding that the minor is entering into the marriage voluntarily and that it is in the “best interests of the minor under the circumstances.”
Judge also are permitted — but not required — to insist that the minor continue to attend school and also may impose “any other condition that the court determines is reasonable under the circumstances.”