By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a state law on Thursday that banned teachers from having sex with students under age 21, overturning a sexual assault conviction against a former teacher who had a consensual relationship with an 18-year-old student.
In a 4-3 decision, the court vacated the conviction against David Paschal, a former teacher in the Elkins School District in northern Arkansas, because the girl was legally an adult during the relationship.
For about five months, Paschal, then 36, had a consensual sexual relationship with the female student at Elkins High School, according to court documents. The girl had been a student of Paschal in tenth and eleventh grades, and she later became his classroom aide and offered to babysit his children.
The two began their affair in 2009, when she was a senior, and Paschal was arrested the following year.
In 2011, he was convicted of four counts of second-degree sexual assault and one count of bribing a witness at a jury trial last year. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
"Regardless of how we feel about Paschal's conduct, which could correctly be referred to as reprehensible, we cannot abandon our duty to uphold the rule of law when a case presents distasteful facts," Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the decision.
The issue presented to the court hinged on "Paschal's fundamental right to engage in private, consensual, noncommercial acts of sexual intimacy with an adult. We hold that it does," the majority said.
In the dissent, Justice Robert Brown wrote that the decision "minimizes the role of a teacher."
He also argued that the state has a general interest in the ensuring the welfare of children in school against teachers who abuse positions of trust and authority.
"For the majority to say that such authority vanishes when a student turns 18 ignores the realities of the student-teacher relationship," Brown wrote. "I cannot agree that a teacher has a right protected by our constitution to engage in sexual contact with a student."
Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said the state was evaluating its options, including possibly seeking a rehearing.
"We respect the court's decision, although we disagree with it," he said.
(Editing By Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Johnston)