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A legislative committee deadlocked on a proposal to abolish a law that allows residents to sue a person for having an affair with their spouse. Only six states permit the practice.
Husbands and wives in North Carolina will continue to be able to sue people who carry on affairs with their spouses after a legislative committee last week deadlocked on a proposal to overturn the centuries-old law that allows the practice.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 4-4 on whether to advance the bill, which would have struck down a longstanding statute that allows jilted spouses to seek legal recourse against a third party for what’s known as “criminal conversation,” a euphemism for sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse.
The tie vote kept the legislation from moving forward. In testimony, opponents of the proposal said that abolishing the law would amount to “legalizing adultery.”
“If the civil action of criminal conversation is abolished, there will no longer be any practical legal remedy against a third party for committing adultery with a married person’s husband or wife,” Jere Royall, counsel for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said in a statement. “Criminal prosecution is rarely if ever pursued for this wrongful conduct. In other words, the General Assembly will for all intents and purposes be legalizing adultery.”
Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Charlotte and the bill’s lead sponsor, disagreed. The law, he argued, is outdated and was created centuries ago overseas at a time when “women were still treated as property of their husbands.”
“Since then, it has become very archaic and antiquated, and has actually been abolished in most countries and states,” he said.
North Carolina is one of only six states (including Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah) with similar laws. (Illinois allowed the practice until 2016, when the state switched to a “no-fault” divorce law.)
Legislators in the Tar Heel State have tried before to repeal the statute. They last made headway in 2009, when the General Assembly approved a proposal that limited the window of time that spouses could file suit in court.
An earlier version of this year’s bill sought to also remove a provision of the law that allows for legal action for “alienation of affection,” or, colloquially, the act of stealing someone’s heart. Harris said he removed that part along with a proposal to decrease the state’s mandated waiting period for divorce in hopes that the legislation would be more palatable for lawakers.
The law has resulted in several high-profile legal cases, including a 2010 decision where a jury awarded $9 million to Cynthia Shackelford, a woman who filed a lawsuit against a New York woman she claimed had an affair with her husband. The ruling was held up on appeal in 2014.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.