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Missouri: Law Requiring Prisoners’ Presence for Marriage Licenses Unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner ruled on February 6, 2014, that a Missouri law that effectively prohibits prisoners from getting married is unconstitutional because it violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

The law – Missouri Revised Statute § 451.040.2 – requires applicants to fill out marriage licenses in the presence of a county recorder or their deputy. It was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri on behalf of three women who planned to marry prisoners at the Tipton Correctional Facility near Jefferson City.

The women and prisoners were denied licenses by Montineau County Recorder Michele A. Higgins, who, according to Fenner’s ruling, did not oppose their right to marry, but believed she would be charged with a misdemeanor if she granted the licenses without the prisoners appearing before her.

While Fenner agreed that Higgins would be subject to “criminal penalties” if she were to issue the women marriage licenses, he ruled that the law “significantly interferes with Plaintiffs’ exercise of their fundamental right to marry their fiancés.”

“Accordingly,” Fenner wrote in his decision, the law “is unconstitutional as applied to situations where an applicant for a marriage license is physically unable to appear in the presence of the recorder of deeds or their deputy due to incarceration” at any facility in Montineau County.

Fenner thus granted a permanent injunction ordering Higgins to issue marriage licenses to any prisoner and his or her fiancé(e) without requiring the prisoner to fill it out in front of the recorder provided that the recorder received “reasonable written proof” of the applicant’s signature and the applicant’s incarcerated status.

Fenner was the third federal judge in a year to rule that the law was unconstitutional. Each ruling, however, covered only individual counties in Missouri – Cole County and Washington County, in addition to Montineau – involving a specific recorder’s office.

Bills in both houses of the Missouri legislature have since been proposed to change the law to exempt prisoners.

“The government should be in the business of encouraging and supporting committed relationships, not preventing couples from being married,” the ACLU of Missouri’s Tony Rothert said in a statement. See: Amos v. Higgins, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mo) Central Division Case No. 14-cv-04011-CV-C-GAF.

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Related legal case

Amos v. Higgins