Attorney General's Opinion
Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal
September 7, 2005
Honorable J. Robert Galvin, M.D., M.P.H.
Department of Public Health
410 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06134
Dear Commissioner Galvin:
Your department has requested advice on whether marriages performed on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation in Ledyard are valid under state law.
My office has been informed that the town clerk for the Town of Ledyard, has received calls from individuals who were told by the Tribe's legal counsel that their marriages were not valid under Connecticut law because their marriage ceremonies were performed on the Reservation. They were told that they must remarry off the reservation and within Ledyard to have a valid marriage.
These individuals apparently have complied with all the requirements for a valid Connecticut marriage. They obtained marriage licenses from Ledyard and were joined in marriage by persons authorized to do so under Connecticut law. Additionally, their marriage certificates have been filed with the Ledyard registrar of vital records. Under these circumstances these individuals have valid marriages under Connecticut law.
In Connecticut, marital status is created and dissolved only according to law. Hames v. Hames, 163 Conn. 588, 592-93, 316 A.2d 379 (1972); Perlstein v. Perlstein, 152 Conn. 152, 156, 204 A.2d 909 (1964); State ex rel. Felson v. Allen, 129 Conn. 427, 432, 29 A.2d 306 (1942). Our statutes require the marriage contract to be entered into before authorized persons with certain formalities after certain conditions have been fulfilled. Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 46b-20 through 46b-33; Hames, supra, 163 Conn. 588 at 593; Dennis v. Dennis, 68 Conn. 186, 196, 36 A. 34 (1896). Thus, in determining the status of a contested marriage, we examine the relevant legislative enactments, bearing in mind that some legislative commandments, including some of those affecting the validity of a marriage, are directory rather than mandatory. Carabetta v. Carabetta, 182 Conn. 344, 346, 438 A.2d 109 (1980). Directory commandments are permissive and failure to comply with them does not automatically void a marriage, while mandatory commandments are compulsory and failure to comply with them renders a marriage void from the beginning.
Pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-24 (revised to 2003), one of the marriage formalities in this state at the time this question arose1 was the requirement that a couple wishing to marry obtain a license from the registrar of vital records of the town in which the marriage was to be celebrated. Counsel for the Tribe informed your department that the marriages in this case were not performed in the Town of Ledyard that issued the marriage licenses and that the failure to perform them in Ledyard rendered them invalid under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-24. This opinion apparently rested on a belief that the Reservation is not part of Ledyard or that the Ledyard town clerk's authority to issue marriage licenses does not extend to marriages celebrated on the Reservation. Whatever the case, we conclude that the marriages in this case were in fact and in law validly celebrated in Ledyard.
(b) Such license, when certified by the registrar, is sufficient authority for any person authorized to perform a marriage ceremony in this state to join such persons in marriage, provided the ceremony is performed within the town where the license was issued . . . .
In construing a statute, we must ascertain and give effect to its legislative intent. To discern that intent, we look to the statute's words, its legislative history and the circumstances surrounding its enactment, the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and its relationship to existing legislation. State v. Misiorski, 250 Conn. 280, 286-7, 738 A.2d 595 (1999). Our initial guide is the language in the statute itself. Kudlacz v. Lindberg Heat Treating Co., 250 Conn. 581, 587, 738 A.2d 135 (1999). "'. . . If the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, we need look no further than the words actually used because we assume that the language expresses the legislature's intent.'" (Citations omitted.) State v. Gurreh, 60 Conn. App. 166, 171, 758 A.2d 877 (2000); Lewis v. Conn. Gaming Policy Bd, 224 Conn. 693, 706, 620 A.2d 780 (1993). Hence, if the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, we must interpret it according to its plain meaning absent a compelling reason to the contrary. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-2z; Office of Consumer Counsel v. Department of Public Utility Control, 252 Conn. 115, 121, 742 A.2d 1257 (2000); Morales v. Pentec, Inc., 57 Conn. App. 419, 429, 749 A.2d 47 (2000).
The plain language of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-24(b) (revised to 2003) indicates that its intent is to direct marriage officiators to exercise the authority granted them by a marriage license in the town where the license was issued. The Reservation is within the boundaries of Ledyard.2 Therefore, the marriages in this case were performed within the Town of Ledyard for purposes of this subsection and are valid.3,4
We recognize that "Indian tribes are 'domestic dependent nations' which exercise inherent sovereign authority over their members and territories." Kizis v. Morse Diesel Intern Inc., 260 Conn. 46, 52-53, 794 A.2d 498 (2002). We further recognize that, because Indian tribes possess this inherent sovereignty, they are allowed to make their own laws and be ruled by them and that a state may not exercise its authority in a manner that unlawfully infringes on this right. White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker, 448 U.S. 136, 142, 100 S. Ct. 2578, 65 L. Ed. 2d 665 (1980); Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 220, 79 S. Ct. 269, 3 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1959). See also Washington v. Confederated Bands & Tribes of Yakima Indian Nation, 439 U.S. 463, 502, 99 S. Ct. 740, 58 L. Ed. 2d 740 (1979), reh'g denied, 440 U.S. 940 (1979); Fisher v. District Court of Sixteenth Judicial Dist., 424 U.S. 382, 96 S. Ct. 943, 47 L. Ed. 2d 106 (1976); Schaghticoke Indians v. Potter, 217 Conn. 612, 628, 587 A.2d 139 (1991).
Nonetheless, infringement by a state enactment on tribal sovereignty requires that the act actually infringe on the exercise of tribal government or existing tribal legislation. Kizis, supra, 260 Conn. 46 at 52; Schaghticoke Indians, supra, 217 Conn. 612 at 629. Confirming the validity of marriages lawfully performed on the Reservation in no way infringes on the exercise of tribal government or legislation. Rather, affirming the marriages in this case under Connecticut legal standards vindicates Connecticut's strong interest in upholding marriages that its citizens, including Native American Indians and non-Indians married on a federally recognized reservation,5 contract under its laws.
1Subsequent to your department's question, the General Assembly amended Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-24 to give couples the option of obtaining a marriage license either from the town where the marriage is to take place or from the town where one of them resides and, therefore, deleting the requirement that all marriages take place in the town where the license was issued. Because the marriages in this case predated the amendment, we rely on Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-24 as it existed prior to the amendment in this opinion. Nevertheless, this opinion is still applicable to individuals who obtain a license in Ledyard and are married on the Reservation.
2The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe received federal recognition in 1983 via the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Claims Settlement Act ("Settlement Act"). 25 U.S.C. §§ 1751 et. seq. The Settlement Act also established the boundaries of the Tribe's Federal Reservation. Section 1752(7) of the Settlement Act defines the Reservation as: "The existing reservation of the Tribe as defined by Chapter 824 of the Connecticut General Statutes and any settlement lands taken in trust by the United States for the Tribe." Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47-63 in turn defines the Tribe's reservation as: "the Mashantucket Pequot reservation in the town of Ledyard, assigned to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe." (Emphasis added.) See Conn. Op. Atty. Gen. No. 95-024 (August 24, 1995).
3See, for example, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community v. City of Prior Lake, 771 F.2d 1153 (8th Cir. Minn. 1985) cert. denied 475 U.S. 1011 (1986). In this case, the Court found that the fact that a tribal government exercised sovereign powers on a reservation and that reservation lands were held in trust by the United States did not prevent the reservation from constituting a portion of a state and its political subdivision. The Court held that, consequently, members of the reservation were residents of the city within whose geographical boundaries the reservation was located and that the city was properly enjoined from excluding the reservation members from elections and from providing services to the reservation on a different basis than that on which other city residents were provided services.
4We note that the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that, pursuant to the Settlement Act which Congress enacted with the consent of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe, the civil laws of this state have the same force and effect on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation as they have elsewhere in Connecticut. Charles v. Charles, 243 Conn. 255, 265, 701 A.2d 650 (1997) cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1136 (1998).
5Pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47-59a(a), Native American Indians residing in this state are citizens of this state and enjoy the same rights and privileges as all other Connecticut citizens.