What Is a Confidential Marriage License and Why Does California Offer Them?

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iStock

If you’re getting married anywhere in the United States, the first step is to get your marriage license. The rules for doing so vary from state to state, with different minimum age, cost, number of witnesses, and blood test requirements. California, however, is the only* state that offers both a regular public marriage license and a confidential marriage license.

[*One other state, Michigan, has something called “secret marriages,” but unlike confidential licenses, secret marriages require a judge in a closed court to seal the court file, and the clerk has no record at all of the marriage.]

A confidential marriage license is legally binding, just like a public license, but it’s not part of the public record. Section 501 of California’s Family Code allows for the county clerk to issue a confidential license, and Section 511 states that these licenses are not open to public inspection, except by a court order. Public marriage licenses, on the contrary, allow anyone, for any reason, to look at the personal information that appears on the licenses at the County Clerk’s office. This information—the couple’s full names, dates and places of birth, parents’ full names, and any previous marriages—is private for confidential licenses.

But why does California alone offer this option? The origin of the confidential marriage license goes back to 1878, when it was meant for unmarried cohabitating couples in the state. Some of these couples lived in rural, remote areas that were inconveniently far from a church or court, but most simply “lived in sin” and/or gave birth to children out of wedlock. Shacking up was majorly frowned upon, so couples could maintain the appearance of respectability within their communities by keeping the details of their nuptials confidential. Confidential marriages were also a boon to the California legal system because inheritance and property rights were more clear-cut when the majority of people cohabitating and raising children were married. 

Until the 1970s, confidential marriage was still an option, but it wasn’t widely taken advantage of as social mores shifted and it became less scandalous for unmarried couples to live together. In 1972, California state legislators changed the law so that laypeople, not just pastors, could perform confidential marriages, allowing couples to marry quickly (without getting their blood tested and waiting for the results) and privately. By the early 1980s, almost 1 in 3 marriages in California was a confidential one. Polygamists, minors, and people falsely claiming Social Security benefits took advantage of the confidential option, though, and the state legislature came close to doing away with it in 1984—it stayed alive by one vote. In 2012, approximately one fifth of all California marriage licenses issued were confidential.

To apply for a confidential marriage license today, a couple must swear that they live together, but it’s a technicality since the couple doesn't have to provide any proof and there is no required minimum length of time for cohabitation. In Los Angeles county, confidential marriage licenses are actually a little cheaper than a public license, but couples opting for the confidential route have to pay $14 to order a certified copy of their license and certificate, so the cost evens out. And since it’s private, no witnesses are needed to be present at the ceremony to sign the license. It’s not exactly clear why other states’ legislatures never added the option for a confidential marriage license after California instituted it, perhaps due to lack of demand. For now, if you want to get a confidential marriage license, you’ll have to do so in California.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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