Many Howard County marriages may be off to false start

September 14, 1990|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff

Last June, Mark A. Cochran, 29, of Columbia, married the former Shelby Armstrong. And now, because the Howard County Circuit Court employee who married them was not sworn in as a deputy clerk there's a slight change the Cochrans' marriage could hinge on a technicality.

Mark Cochran, expressing some anger, said he would not take the vows again unless he is told his marriage is invalid.

"I only live a few minutes away and I don't mind going back and doing it again. But in my mind, I was married on that day," said Cochran, a member of the Army who has been stationed in the Baltimore area for the past year.

He said he recalled that the deputy clerk who performed the marriage ceremony recited the official words from memory and told them she had performed "hundreds" of weddings. He said he was disturbed that officials did not ensure that she was given authority to do her job.

"You make lifetime decisions based on the fact that you have a piece of paper in your hand," Cochran said.

The Cochrans are not alone. Hundreds of other marriages were performed over the last four years by the deputy clerk who was not sworn in as required by law, according to the Maryland attorney general's office.

But C. Merritt Pumphrey, the Circuit Court Clerk, maintained that the employee was authorized to perform marriage ceremonies without taking the oath of deputy clerk, as long as she was designated by the county's administrative judge.

Two of the three clerk employees who perform most of the marriage ceremonies at the Circuit Courthouse were redeputized Dec. 11, 1986, along with 11 other employees, according to court records.

Pumphrey designated Laura Pannebecker as a deputy clerk authorized to conduct weddings, but failed to administer the oath to her again in 1986 as required by state law.

"I just chose not to," said Pumphrey, who has run the county

clerk's office for 25 years. "And I think you'll find if you look at the law, there's not anything in there about the attorney general having anything to do with marriages."

Pumphrey said he based his decision not to deputize Pannebecker and several other employees on an opinion from the attorney general's office. According to Pumphrey, the opinion said any employee in his office can perform marriages as long as that person is designated by the county's administrative judge. But Pumphrey was unable back up his position because he did not have a copy of the opinion.

Julia Freit, an assistant attorney general, said yesterday Maryland law states clearly that only deputized employees can perform weddings. She said she called Pumphrey this week after becoming aware of the problem to tell him that employees

conducting marriages must be sworn in as deputies in each four-year administrative term.

"I highly recommended that [Pannebecker] absolutely perform no further marriages," Freit said.

Citing the state's family law, she said marriages can only be performed by an official of a religious order, a clerk or a designated deputy clerk, and the state constitution requires every deputy clerk to take an oath.

"They shouldn't be performing as a deputy clerk if they've never qualified for office," Freit said.

Freit said she could not predict for certain what the outcome of a challenge to the marriages would be, but she said a 1925 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling would make it likely that any decision would hold them as valid.

The state's highest court ruled in Knapp v. Knapp that a couple's marriage was legal although the minister who joined them did not have authority from the Reformed Episcopal Church to conduct ceremonies. The court ruled the union valid because the couple believed the minister was qualified.

"It's a hypothetical question because this case law has never been challenged," said Freit, who acknowledged that the 1925 case was slightly different because it came before Maryland allowed non-religious marital ceremonies.

Freit added: "You can't say whether it would go this way or that way. The best you can say is that it's arguable that this case would apply."

Pannebecker has performed hundreds of weddings at the courthouse over the last four years as an undeputized clerk's office employee. Over a six-month period ending last June 20, she conducted 110 ceremonies, an Evening Sun review has found.

She could not be reached for comment.

Russell Huston said he and his wife, Jill, of Hanover, Pa., came to Howard County to get married last Jan. 19 because her family lives in Maryland and "it's a real hassle to get married in Pennsylvania."

They naturally reacted with shock when told they were married by someone who may not have been qualified to perform the ceremony.

"Is this on the level?" asked Russell Huston. "This is really funny."

After a while, he turned serious. He said he was worried that his medical insurance company would seek repayment on bills incurred since their wedding by his wife and their three children from her previous marriage.

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