Can a judge sentence you to marriage instead of jail?

This story sounds like one of those crazy items that winds up on a subreddit page, trickles out to some Weird News of the Week aggregators and then disappears, but it probably deserves a bit more attention in terms of national trends in judicial propriety. A Texas judge recently gave a man in his courtroom a choice in sentencing: get married to your girlfriend within thirty days and write out some Bible verses or do fifteen days in jail. The suspect in question is now happily (?) married. (Yahoo News)

A 20-year-old East Texas man jumped into a quickly arranged marriage after a judge told him last month he had a choice of getting hitched or spending 15 days in jail on an assault charge…

The judge said he would grant probation if Bundy married his 19-year-old girlfriend, Elizabeth Jaynes, within 30 days, write Bible verses and attend counseling. If he declined, he would go to jail, according to a transcript of the proceedings obtained by Tyler TV broadcaster KLTV.

“Is she worth it?” Rogers asked Bundy, according to the transcripts.

It’s a story which might even sound funny. (And to be sure, a whole slew of “ball and chain” jokes came to my mind immediately.) But before we even get to the propriety of such a “unique” sentencing proposition, it’s worth noting what a bad idea this was. The guy was in court because he had assaulted his now-wife’s ex-boyfriend. Were the bride and her family really on board with the idea of a hasty marriage to a guy with that sort of temper? Is he going to take any of this out on her in the future? Further, even if he didn’t intend it, the judge was kind of making marriage out to be a life sentence. (One wonders if the guy had a moment in court where he was balancing fifteen days in the can against his expected life span.)

This is hardly the first time we’ve seen judges going all freestyle in the sentencing phase of minor crime trials. The entire nation heard about the Ohio judge who sentenced a woman to hold a sign on the public sidewalk proclaiming that she was an idiot. (And to be fair… she definitely acted like an idiot.) Another guy (also in Ohio, so we may be detecting a pattern here) was given the choice to hold a sign proclaiming himself a bully rather than head for the hoosegow. Other examples of creative sentencing abound.

Perhaps some of these are good ideas if the crimes are minor enough. The jails are frequently too crowded anyway and for all I know some of these people might learn a lesson. But surely there is a line beyond which judges should not tread. And if so, marriage seems to fall clearly on the far side. The government shouldn’t, in my opinion, be dipping its toes into the marriage game to begin with, but mandating a marriage must be beyond the bounds of proper government regulation of the activities of citizens.

And what of the newly joined Mr. and Mrs. Bundy? (She’s all of nineteen years old, by the way.) If the marriage doesn’t work out, do they need a divorce or could this marriage simply be annulled on the grounds that there wasn’t meaningful consent given in the first place? Here’s a brief overview from Findlaw which covers the idea of consent. (emphasis added)

Before a marital union is recognized by a state, there must be consent or agreement between the parties of the union to be married. For consent to exist, both parties must agree to the marriage and there must be no mistake as to the nature of the union. In addition, no force must be used upon either party to enter into the union. Once consent is determined to exist, the laws of the individual states determine the status of the couple as spouses.

The threat of jail simply has to qualify as “force” upon one of the parties and it’s being wielded by the state. We have sentencing guidelines for a reason, and one aspect of that is to ensure that judges don’t start getting a little too happy and free wheeling when a whim strikes them. This judge needs to be examined as to his fitness to serve and the Bundys should have the option of exiting this union at no cost or penalty if they wish.

Exit question(s): What sorts of “unusual sentencing” are you comfortable with? Forced marches while holding signs? How about writing scripture and submitting it to the court? And does any of it really work?

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