Analysis: House declines to expand divorce laws

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

Mississippi lawmakers have no intention of making it easier for “I do’s” to become “I don’ts.”

It has been more than three decades since the Legislature enacted no-fault divorce. To use this method, both spouses must agree to divorce and agree to child custody, child support, and property division.

Since that time, lawmakers have passed laws addressing with child abuse, sexual abuse and spousal abuse. While a male-dominated Legislature agreed to the seriousness of those crimes, it would not — despite urging of others — agree those same transgressions could impact on a marriage.

Attempts to change the grounds for a divorce, to allow either party in a failing marriage to seek a no-fault divorce, or to require pre-divorce counseling have died in the Legislature.

Conversely, efforts to appeal the three-day waiting period to get a marriage license or put more restraints on getting a divorce have failed.

Lawmakers have also declined to go off into the area of an equitable division of property, on which chancery judges have been guided by a Mississippi Supreme Court decision dating back to 1994.

Opponents have said before making any change lawmakers should be sure they will improve the situation, not make it worse. If a judge does not handle property divisions fairly, they say, the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling.

The late Sen. Howard Dyer of Greenville, who championed the no-fault divorce law, campaigned for its passage saying feuding parents should avoid messy court fights.

“Airing their dirty laundry in public and exposing the children to a disgusting courtroom soap opera,” Dyer said in one debate.

State Rep. Mark DuVall, D-Mantachie, waded off into this quagmire this past week with legislation that proposed adding compulsive gambling as a 13th ground of divorce.

There are 12 grounds for divorce in the state, including adultery, habitual drunkenness and impotence.

“I drafted this bill to address the concerns of a few in my district that had to get a divorce on other grounds, but did not have grounds to get the lost savings or assets repaid them since they were divorced on other grounds,” DuVall told The Associated Press.

Or as House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, said: If a spouse repeatedly gambles away the paycheck and “doesn’t feed the children and doesn’t feed the dogs” the partner should be allowed to divorce on those grounds.

However, opponents said the state should not make divorce easier. In the debate, they argued marriage was steeped in Biblical teachings and Christianity. Some lawmakers also said compulsive gambling wasn’t defined anywhere in the DuVall’s bill.

Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, jokingly asked: “Is farming considered compulsive gambling?”

The bill failed with 40 votes for and 74 against.

Other bills have been filed in the 2010 session addressing divorce. Many deal with child custody issues and premarital agreements.

A couple of bills proposed adding irreconcilable differences as the 13th ground, allowing one spouse to seek dissolution of a marriage using a method not limited to no-fault divorces. That issue also has failed in recent legislative sessions.

Another bill proposes a 13th ground as when a couple has been separated without reconciliation for at least five years. There is a proviso that a chancellor can block the divorce if minor children are involved and a divorce is not in their best interests.