Howard County Circuit Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey doesn't think it's a problem, but Laura Pannebecker won't be performing any more marriage ceremonies at the county courthouse for a while.
"I'm obviously not going to let [her] do any more weddings until this thing gets straightened out," said Pumphrey, whose decision not to formally deputize Pannebecker as a deputy clerk four years ago has come back to haunt him.
The Maryland Constitution and the state code permit only deputized employees of the clerk's office to perform the ceremonies, according to the state attorney general's office, which last week advised Pumphrey to either swear in Pannebecker or stop her from performing any more ceremonies.
Pumphrey said last night that he doubts that his failure to deputize Pannebecker leaves open the possibility that any of the hundreds of marriages she has conducted in the last four years could face a legal challenge.
But some family law attorneys said that although the courts would not likely declare the marriages invalid, the issue is not clear-cut.
One, Fredric G. Antenberg, a Howard County family lawyer, went so far as to suggest that couples married by Pannebecker who want to take a conservative approach may want to retake their marital oaths "so there wouldn't be a cloud over the validity."
Sources say Pumphrey did not deputize Pannebecker so that he would be able to fire her more easily. Two other clerk's office employees who perform many marriages were deputized Dec. 11, 1986, at the onset of a new administrative term for the clerk's office.
Pumphrey has refused to say why Pannebecker was not sworn in as a deputy clerk at that time, and would not say whether it was because he wanted to be able to fire her and other undeputized employees without having to go through a long process that involves a hearing before a three-judge panel.
Under state law, anyone conducting marriages without proper authority can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined $500. Pannebecker has been on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Administrative Judge J. Thomas Nissel, of the county's Circuit Court, said he was unaware that Pumphrey had not deputized an employee who performs weddings.
"I would just assume that would have happened," Nissel said. He added that he didn't believe the mistake would jeopardize the marriages. "If someone doesn't have a license, it doesn't invalidate a marriage, but I would have to look into it."
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said Friday that he believed the marriages were valid because the Maryland Court of Appeals held in a 1925 ruling that a marriage was valid although it was performed by an unauthorized minister.
"Public policy always plays a role in a decision," said Leon Berg, of the Baltimore law firm of Gendler, Berg and Singleton, P.A. "Do you want to take the risk of condemning marriages and throwing confusion into so many family situations because of one mistake at the public official level?"
Yet, Berg said, the differences between the Knapp v. Knapp case of 1925 and the marriages performed in Howard County zTC could lead a lawyer to argue that the court might have reached another decision in the recent marriages.
He added that Curran's opinion would carry some authority in the court, but that it was not necessarily the final word on the matter.