The Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A Mississippi Senate bill would add an “irrevocably broken” marriage as grounds for a divorce.

This is the latest in an age-old, usually fruitless, effort to bring Mississippi’s antiquated, misogynistic divorce laws into the 20th (that’s right, 20th) century.

Judiciary A Chairman Brice Wiggins has authored Senate Bill 2643, which passed the Senate on a vote of 35-13, with four politically courageous souls voting “present.” Wiggins authored the bill based on recommendations of a task force of judges, lawyers and other experts reviewing the state’s domestic laws.

“The task force’s reasons are compelling,” Wiggins told colleagues, “it’s the destruction caused to children and families caused by Mississippi’s restrictive divorce laws … being weaponized.”

This would at least be a step closer to a unilateral no-fault divorce like most of the rest of the world has. Mississippi and South Dakota remain the only two states without a unilateral no-fault divorce ground. Mississippi’s divorce ground of “irreconcilable differences” requires mutual consent of spouses. This frequently makes getting a divorce in Mississippi difficult and expensive, and it often allows one spouse to delay a divorce for years, sometimes many years. This also leads to spouses and children being trapped in bad, often abusive, family situations.

Otherwise, a spouse wanting out of a marriage would have to file for — and prove, sometimes with a ridiculous legal burden of proof level — a divorce on one of 12 grounds. The wording of many of the grounds exemplifies how antiquated they are. The grounds are:

  • Adultery.
  • Habitual cruel and inhumane treatment (note it must be “habitual”). In 2017, after much debate and having killed similar measures for years, the Legislature added spousal domestic abuse, based on testimony of the victim spouse, to this ground.
  • Willful, continued and obstinate desertion for at least one continuous year.
  • A criminal conviction and imprisonment.
  • Habitual drunkenness.
  • Habitual and excessive use of opium, morphine or other like drugs.
  • “Idiocy,” provided the spouse did not know of a mental disability before marriage.
  • Incurable mental illness.
  • Wife impregnated by another man.
  • Incest — spouses related to each other.
  • Natural impotency.
  • Bigamy.

Mississippi’s divorce laws, little changed over 100 years, are ostensibly aimed at upholding the sanctity of marriage. But they don’t do that, as Mississippi’s divorce rate is often among the highest in the country (likely because its laws make it very easy to get married). They do add to the state’s high rate of domestic abuse, clog the courts with protracted divorce battles and cost families money on attorney bills that would be better spent otherwise. The laws put low-income people at a disadvantage, particularly homemakers who don’t have resources to fight a protracted legal battle to get out of a marriage.

READ MORE: Divorce in Mississippi is difficult and costly.

But many lawmakers and some of the state’s religious lobby have opposed any reform of divorce laws. Lawmakers did, however, in 2012 pass what was called a “quickie marriage” law, making it easier to get married in the Magnolia State by removing a 3-day waiting period and other regulations.

The Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a Coast judge a few years ago tried unsuccessfully to get the state Supreme Court to find the state’s lack of a true no-fault divorce unconstitutional.

Wiggins said the task force had recommended a unilateral no-fault ground, but the “irrevocably broken” was apparently a nod to the realpolitik.

The bill now heads to the House, where divorce reform has also been a tough sell.

Sen. Rod Hickman, an attorney from Macon, before the Senate vote said: “This law does not make divorce an automatic thing. It’s a half-step. I’ve had clients separated for 16 years who still couldn’t get a divorce. I think this is a good law that is going to help a lot of people.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.