In the United States, a person may not consent to sexual intercourse with an adult until the age of 16. Violation of this threshold by an adult is classified as statutory rape. But this crime is cast aside in cases involving an adult who has intercourse with a minor to whom they are married as the result of parental permission and approval by a judge.
Recent University of Tulsa College of Law graduate Amber Plumlee (JD ’19) learned about this longstanding “marital defense” of statutory rape while she was a student in Professor Russell Christopher’s sexual crimes seminar. Plumlee became so absorbed by this unsettling loophole that she continued researching and writing on the topic even after the course ended.
The result is her essay “Don’t Put a Ring on It: Abolishing the Marital Defense to Statutory Rape,” published in the January issue of Women’s Rights Law Reporter. This journal was founded in 1970 by feminist activists, legal workers and law students, including now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The current editors – Janika Best and Youngjin Park – said they accepted Plumlee’s essay for a number of reasons: “The subject had never been addressed and we felt it was necessary to bring light to the nuances of the issue. Additionally, Plumlee’s piece was well written, up to our standards and engaging.”
“Through collaborative opportunities with faculty, TU Law students find their voices as lawyers and scholars to address important legal issues facing society,” commented Dean Lyn Entzeroth. “I congratulate Amber on researching, writing and publishing this essay, which gets to the heart of a disturbing civil rights issue. Amber has explored an often-overlooked shortcoming in the law’s ability to protect minors, and I hope her work will enter into legislators’ deliberations over how to improve our country’s ability to shield young people from harm.”
From nontraditional student to legal writing pro
Plumlee’s essay is the result of its author’s thorough research and moral outrage. When the United States State Department declares that marriage under 18 years of age is a “‘human rights abuse’ that ‘produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life’ . . . by forcing her ‘into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature,’” she pointed out, why then is such a practice allowed in this country?
On Plumlee’s account, “Allowing the marital defense of statutory rape to remain intact while we continue to espouse the necessity of statutory rape laws is laughable.” Victims, she noted, suffer lifelong consequences, including loss of educational attainment and increased risk of poor mental health. “Since all that is required to marry under the age of consent is a parent’s consent and a judge’s approval, there is insufficient protection against predatory adults.”
The idea of protecting vulnerable people from harm perhaps comes naturally to someone who, prior to entering law school, worked for a decade as a physician assistant. In addition, since moving to Tulsa in 2015, Plumlee has been volunteering her medical skills with Tulsa’s John 3:16 Mission to help homeless people. Once she, her husband and daughter had settled into life in Tulsa, however, Plumlee knew she was ready for a career change. TU Law seemed the best place to make that happen.
“I was definitely a nontraditional student,” Plumlee recalled. “I was older than most of my classmates and had a child at home. In addition, my previous academic training was in biology and I had been working for years at a career that brought me a lot of satisfaction. But the amazing thing was I always felt completely welcome at TU Law. Fellow students, the professors, staff – no one treated me any differently. I felt valued.”
When she began law school, Plumlee – who passed the Oklahoma bar in July 2019 and is currently studying for the Kansas bar – had no idea that legal writing was going to take such a firm hold on her. The initial glimmers, however, appeared during the first semester.
“About halfway through the torts course I met with Professor Yasser to review my midterm exam and he commented positively on the quality of my writing. Through this encouragement, I came to believe I could be a strong writer. Professor Hutchison, the director of legal writing at TU Law, was also hugely supportive and a wonderful guide.” During her time at TU Law, Plumlee’s writing prowess was recognized with a CALI Excellence for the Future Award: Legal Writing II.
Don’t put a ring on it
This brings Plumlee’s story to Russell Christopher’s sexual crimes seminar and the genesis of “Don’t Put a Ring on It: Abolishing the Marital Defense of Statutory Rape.” Plumlee enrolled in this course during the second semester of her 2L year. One of the main outcomes of that seminar is to develop an essay of around 25 pages that is of publishable quality.
“I knew Professor Christopher from a number of other courses I had taken with him, and I really liked his teaching style,” Plumlee noted. “In the seminar, he shared with us an array of writings and legal analyses of various cases relating to sex crimes. It was all stimulating. But the topic that really hit home for me was child marriage, in part because my daughter was only 12 at the time. I began researching and thinking about the issue, and I would bring my ideas to Professor Christopher’s office and he would help me to mold and refine them.”
One of the challenges Plumlee faced was that rape and statutory rape are widely written about in the legal literature. “But when I was able to formulate a new angle on the topic, that’s when Professor Christopher became really intrigued. It was very exciting for me. By the end of our meetings, he was confident that I was bringing fresh light and had a publishable paper on my hands.”
As it happened, that evaluation was borne out in spades. Plumlee’s essay received no fewer than five publication offers. “But when I heard from Women’s Rights Law Reporter and learned of the connection to Justice Ginsburg, I just knew I had to place my work there. I was speechless; simply floored.”
Now making plans for life after the Kansas bar exam, Plumlee is keen on ensuring that the legal writing skills she honed at TU law do not get dusty or dull. In fact, she plans to establish a law firm that will enable her to focus on legal writing and advocacy. Her current writing project?: “It’s super early, but I have started work on a completely new paper. This one is on reforming the voir dire process. My hope is to fundamentally upset our current practices in this area.”
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