BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A legal loophole in Idaho that allows parents of teens to nullify custody agreements by arranging child marriages remains in effect, according to a state Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday.
In a split decision, the Supreme Court declined to rule whether: Idaho’s Child Marriage Law – allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to marry if one of the parents agrees to the union – is unconstitutional. Instead, the judges said that once a child is released through marriage, the family court loses jurisdiction over child custody cases.
The case arose out of a custody battle between a Boise woman and her ex-husband, who planned to move to Florida and take their 16-year-old daughter with them. The ex-husband was accused of setting up a “marriage of convenience” between his daughter and another teenager as a way to end the custody battle.
It’s not a rare scenario — all but seven states allow minors under the age of 18 to get married, according to Finally unleashed, an organization that opposes child marriage. Nevada, Idaho, Arkansas and Kentucky have the highest rates of child marriage per capita, according to the organization. While minors are generally considered legally emancipated once married, they generally still have limited legal rights and therefore may not be able to file for divorce or apply for a protection order.
Erin Carver and William Hornish divorced in 2012, and only their youngest was still living at home last year when both sides began to dispute custody arrangements.
Carver said she learned that Hornish was planning a “marriage of convenience” for the teen to end the custody battle, and asked the family court to stop the marriage plans. A few days later, the magistrate agreed, but it was too late. The teenager was already married.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in March, and Carver’s attorney argued that the Child Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it allows one parent to terminate another parent’s rights without due process. Hornish’s attorney, Geoffrey Goss, objected that his client had acted legally and followed state law.
On Tuesday make a statement, a majority of Supreme Court justices said that because the marriage had taken place before an initial ruling was made, the family court lost jurisdiction. Once a child is married, it is emancipated and no longer subject to custody arrangements, the Supreme Court said.
The judges also declined to consider whether the law is legal under the state’s constitution, saying in part that neither side had presented sufficient legal arguments on the matter. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was not clearly unconstitutional.
Judges Gregory Moeller and John Stegner disagreed with the majority opinion, finding that the lower court could have done more to “address a father’s outrageous actions,” by making the original injunction retroactive. That would have allowed Carver to annul the marriage as the custodial parent.
“Dad has not only ridiculed our marriage laws, he has exposed his 16-year-old daughter to the potentially life-changing consequences of a thoughtless and rushed marriage of convenience,” Moeller wrote in the dissent.
The Associated Press could not find Hornish’s contact information and his lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither Carver nor her attorney immediately responded to a request for comment.
Other families in Idaho have been watching the matter closely.
Ryan Small, a Boise man embroiled in a similar custody battle, said he was disappointed by the ruling. Small tried to stop his ex-wife from leaving the state with their son last winter when he learned that the 16-year-old boy had been secretly married off to another teen with his mother’s consent.
Small has not seen the teen since November 15, 2021, and because the boy is considered self-emancipated, Small has little ability to track him down or return him to Idaho.
“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has decided to raise the issue of the constitutionality of the law,” Small said on Tuesday. “A parent’s role is to protect their child, and the court that does not adopt the constitutionality of the law will allow abusive parents to use their children as pawns to evade court protection.”
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