A bill banning child marriage in Connecticut was signed into law Friday by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, a victory for an international child-protection movement, a personal milestone for Bysiewicz and a political footnote for the state.
For the first time since Gov. Ned Lamont took office in January 2019, a bill became law with a signature other than his. With Lamont overseas at the Paris Air Show, Bysiewicz is the acting governor.
“I’m gonna sign my first bill,” Bysiewicz said, taking the legislation from the governor’s general counsel, Natalie Braswell, in a ceremony in her third-floor corner office, directly above the governor’s.
As of July 1, the minimum age to marry will be 18 in Connecticut, the ninth state to ban child marriage in recent years. It joins Minnesota and seven regional neighbors: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.
The signing could have waited for Lamont’s return on Saturday, but the measure has special significance for Bysiewicz, who advocated for its passage as chair of the Governor’s Council on Women and Girls.
“This was a nice opportunity, and I’m happy that the governor decided that he wanted me to sign it,” Bysiewicz said.
Lamont’s chief of staff, Jonathan Dach, who had worked on the issue as a State Department staffer during the administration of President Barack Obama, had encouraged Bysiewicz and the council to take up the cause, Bysiewicz said.
Researchers and advocacy groups like Unchained at Last say minor girls who marry are subject to sex trafficking and far greater rates of abuse than other wives, and Obama called child marriage a “threat to fundamental human rights.” In public hearing testimony, Dach said the U.S. was in no position to urge change.
“When we would call on other countries to end child marriage, other countries would routinely say: ‘It’s legal in America.’ And we would have nothing to say back,” Dach said. “We must end child marriage here not only to protect our own children, but also so our diplomats can better promote the rights and empowerment of girls around the world.”
Applauding as Bysiewicz signed the bill were advocates and lawmakers who worked on passage.
“This is a historic victory for the approximately half a million girls who live in Connecticut and for anyone who cares about women, girls and human beings,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained. “Because let’s be very clear: Child marriage, almost always, almost all the children who marry are girls married to adult men.”
Connecticut had no minimum age to marry until 2017, when Audrey Blondin, a lawyer and Democratic activist, and her husband, Dr. Matthew Blondin, sought to establish one — age 18.
Searches of records found that children in Connecticut were marrying as young as 13, as long as they had the written permission of a probate judge. State law set no standards for review.
A minimum age of 18 failed, leading to a compromise that passed unanimously: A minimum age of 16, with a probate review necessary for marriages by persons 16 or 17. A judge had to determine that consent was voluntary and the proposed marriage would not be detrimental to the minor, among other factors.
“We had a compromise in 2017. But it’s great for us to draw that bright line at 18,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield.
Reiss, the Blondins and Kissel were among the witnesses to the signing Friday. Also there was Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, whose sister was married in St. Lucia at age 17 to a 50-year-old man who Gaston says abused her until she eventually fled to the U.S.
Bysiewicz signed the actual bill, then commemorative copies for witnesses.
“I’m gonna hand out pens, but they don’t have my name on it like the ones the governor has,” Bysiewicz said.
Lamont chose Bysiewicz, a former state representative and secretary of the state who was opposing him for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, as his running mate. Their relationship is cordial, though that is not always the case across the U.S.
Relations between governors and lieutenant governors can be fraught, especially when the number two is waiting for a chance to seek the top job, or if they run in one of the 18 states where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately and can posses different party affiliations or philosophies.
In Idaho, a Republican governor returned from out of state to discover that the lieutenant governor had negated executive orders relating to COVID-19 precautions in his absence.
Bysiewicz did sign executive orders relating to COVID while Lamont was absent, but they were drafted to reflect the administration’s wishes. Lamont and Bysiewicz frequently meet, as do their staffs. Her desire to succeed him is no secret at the Capitol.
The office has been a poor springboard in Connecticut, barring the times when a governor has resigned, as Gov. John G. Rowland did while facing impeachment and federal prosecution for bid rigging in 2004. Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell served out his term then won her own in 2006.
In New York, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was ignored by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and denied any significant public role. In fact, according to the New York Post, Cuomo had told Hochul she would be off the ticket when he ran for reelection in 2022.
Fate intervened. Instead, Hochul took Cuomo’s job in 2021 when a sexual harassment scandal forced his resignation. Like Rell, Hochul was elected to her own term in 2022.
In a brief interview after the bill signing Friday, Bysiewicz smiled when the New York episode was mentioned. She leaned forward and said, “Life has a way of working out, right?”