Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. today issued an opinion affirming the validity of hundreds of marriages performed by an undeputized employee of the Howard County Circuit Court clerk's office over the last four years.
The opinion said that although clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey failed, as required, to swear in Laura Pannebecker as a deputy before allowing her to perform weddings, a 1925 Court of Appeals ruling would uphold the marriages.
Pumphrey requested the opinion from the attorney general after The Evening Sun reported that Pannebecker had performed hundreds of marriages since 1986 without proper authority, raising the possibility that the marriages could be challenged in court.
Curran's opinion stated that "any marriage performed by the employee under apparent authority to do so is nonetheless valid. This conclusion is firmly rooted in both Maryland case law and sound public policy favoring the validity of marriage."
The opinion said the couples married by Pannebecker would not have to take any further action to ensure their marriages are valid.
Curran said, however, that Pannebecker is not authorized to perform marriages unless she is sworn in as a deputy clerk. Pumphrey removed her from marriage duty last week and has said he has no plans to deputize her.
The 1925 case, Knapp v. Knapp, upheld the marriage of a woman who was seeking an allowance from her deceased husband's estate. Other family members challenged the will on the grounds that their marriage was performed by a minister who did not have authority to administer vows.
Curran wrote that although the Knapp case happened before Maryland permitted non-religious marriage ceremonies, the Knapp case would be applicable because Pannebecker appeared to be a designated deputy clerk.
He noted that the Knapp case never has been overruled or modified.
Pumphrey has contended that he believed employees of his office did not have to be sworn in to marry people. He said he did not deputize Pannebecker and many other employees in 1986 because he wanted to have greater authority to fire unproductive workers.
Pannebecker was a sworn deputy when she was designated to perform wedding ceremonies in 1983, but Pumphrey did not re-issue the oath of office to her after the 1986 elections.
"When the clerk elects not to reappoint and reswear an individual to a new four-year term as deputy clerk, that person, if he or she continues in the clerk's employment, becomes an 'employee' of the clerk and no longer qualifies as a 'deputy clerk,' " the opinion states.