Colorado Loophole Lets Teens Marry; Common Law Trumps Statute

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Byline: Valerie Richardson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DENVER - Twelve-year-old girls are free to enter into a common-law marriage with 14-year-old boys or, for that matter, actor Johnny Depp, according to a Colorado court decision.

The Colorado Court of Appeals shocked parents and lawmakers alike Thursday when it ruled that common law trumps state statute when it comes to age-of-consent rules for marriage.

"It did surprise me because this issue hadn't arisen before in this context," said Stephen Harhai, a Denver lawyer and past chairman of the Colorado Bar Association's family law section.

"We have very clear rules in statutory marriage but not in common-law marriage. The logic does follow, but it takes you to a surprising place," Mr. Harhai said.

State statute sets the age limit at 16 with parental consent and 18 without it, but Colorado law also contains a provision for common-law marriages. The court cited English common law, the basis of U.S. common law, under which marriages are permitted at age 12 for girls and 14 for boys.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said yesterday he would urge the legislature to add an age-of-consent rule to the state's common-law statute as soon as possible.

The decision reversed a lower-court ruling in which a judge decided that a Weld County girl was too young to consent to a common-law marriage with a man more than twice her age.

The girl, known in legal documents as J.M.H., moved in with Willis Lee Rouse in April 2002 when she was 14 and he was 34. The girl is now 18 and Rouse, who is serving a four-year jail sentence for stalking stemming from a sexual-assault arrest, is 38. …