PHOENIX -- A House panel voted Wednesday to restrict the ability of teens younger than 18 to marry in Arizona -- but only after creating a couple of ways around that.
The 8-1 vote came after Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, conceded she could not get the votes for her original plan to outlaw marriage entirely by anyone who is younger than 18. In fact, she could not even get Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, to even give HB 2006 a hearing.
So her only choice was to agree to water down her plan.
Arizona is one of a majority of states that currently has no minimum age to wed. Instead, youngsters age 16 and 17 can marry with the consent of a parent.
Those younger than that also can wed with both parental commission and the permission of a judge who gets to determine if the marriage is voluntary and is in the “best interests’’ of the minor. Judges also can impose other conditions like requiring the child to continue attending school.
Ugenti-Rita said Wednesday she believes all those exceptions make no sense.
“I think the original bill was just fine,’’ she said. But faced with the political reality of her bill dying for lack of a hearing, Ugenti-Rita agreed to changes.
Farnsworth defended making those demands as a condition of hearing the bill.
“I contacted quite a few people,’’ he said. “I think there was a consensus that simply just prohibiting marriage for under 18 with no exceptions was not a real reasonable approach.’’
The alternative version of HB 2006 approved by the panel would, for the first time ever, spell out in Arizona law that anyone younger than 16 cannot get married, no matter who else approves.
For those 16 and 17 there would be two options.
One would grant permission if the minor is “emancipated,’’ a legal procedure where a minor gets a court to rule the minor is an adult. The minor must prove to a court that he or she is financially self-sufficient and able to provide for food, housing and medical care without parental assistance.
Farnsworth noted that Arizona law already permits emancipated minors to enter into all sort of other contracts.
The alternative path would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to wed with parental permission.
In both cases, though, the legislation spells out that the prospective spouse cannot be more than three years older than the minor.
Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, questioned the whole premise of the restrictions.
“What is the compelling public need that we need to start regulating the intimate family relationships of young people who want to get married?’’ he asked. And Stringer said he was particularly opposed to the idea that someone who is 16 or 17 could not marry someone who was more than three years his or her senior.
“I think many of us know of situations of people who are 15, 16, 17 years old have boyfriends four or five years older than they are,’’ he said. “They have healthy relationships and may even have healthy marriages.’’
Farnsworth said the three-year limit makes sense, saying it allows for situations where a high school freshman can date a senior. He said that three-year maximum means that people are not only of similar mindsets but also there is “similar power structure so you don’t start to get into the levels of abuse that you do when somebody is 35 and 16.’’
Stringer, in casting the lone dissenting vote, said he will offer an amendment when the measure goes to the full House to expand that permissible age gap.
There is no statewide figure of how many teens younger than 18 wed each year in Arizona, as marriage licenses 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 a marriage licenses in a five-year period ending last June 23. 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.
Aaron Nash, the agency’s special counsel, said that in all cases examined, all the minors were either 16 or 17 years old.