The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the state's law banning sexual contact between teachers and students, finding that people 18 or older have a constitutional right to engage in a consensual sexual relationship.
The court sided with 38-year-old David Paschal, an Elkins High School history and psychology teacher who admitted having a five-month consensual sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student.
"Regardless of how we feel about Paschal's conduct, which could correctly referred to as reprehensible, we cannot abandon our duty to uphold the rule of law when a case presents distasteful facts," wrote Chief Justice Jim Hannah.
Attorneys for the state argued the law protects high school students from sexual advances of teachers who are in positions of authority. But the high court found the law was unconstitutional because it criminalized sexual conduct between consenting adults.
In a dissent, Justice Robert Brown said that the majority's opinion will cause disruption in high schools because there will be nothing to prevent teachers from having sex with students who are 18 or older.
"This will cause significant disruption in our high schools and have a deleterious impact on education in general and the teacher-student dynamic in particular," wrote Brown.
It is unclear if the state will appeal the ruling.
"We respect the Court's decision, although we disagree with it," wrote Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel in an email. "We are currently evaluating our options, which include seeking a rehearing."
Whether the ruling will or can be addressed through future legislation is also unclear.
"We're reviewing the decision," said Matt DeCample, spokesman for Governor Mike Beebe. "It's way too early to talk about any immediate attempts at a legislative response."
Paschal, who is serving a 30-year sentence, will have his convictions reversed and dismissed. His attorney, Casey Copeland, said his client was "vindicated by the Supreme Court."
"I think that this case does not necessarily say a teacher can do that and keep their job," said Copeland. "I think the loss of job and loss of teacher's license might be appropriate for that, but it's not appropriate to put someone in jail for 30 years."
Several states have laws banning sexual content between teachers and students. Earlier this week, a Republican assemblywoman in California introduced a bill to create a law similar to what was just struck down in Arkansas. If the bill is successful, she said, California would be the 24th state to ban student-teacher sex. In some states, such affairs are a felony.
Allen Reed can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/Allen_Reed .