Hundreds of couples married since 1986 by an undeputized clerk of the Howard County Circuit Court don't have to send back the wedding presents.

The fact that assistant clerk Laura Pannebecker was not formally resworn after local elections four years ago does not invalidate the marriages she has performed since then, according to a recent ruling by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Curran's office did not know exactly how many marriages Pannebecker had performed, but said it amounts to hundreds.

Pannebecker, who was taken off marriage duties several weeks ago, was sworn as an assistant to Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey when she was hired in 1982. She was one of about 24 clerks who were not resworn when Pumphrey was reelected in 1986. Currently, Pumphrey and four other clerks perform marriages in the Howard court office.

Pumphrey said he had resworn 11 employees after the election and said his department is "easier to manage" when employees are not sworn. He must get court approval to fire a sworn employee, he explained.

Curran, first alerted to Pannebecker's status by Baltimore Evening Sun reports in mid-September, said it is the law of Maryland that deputy clerks are required to take an oath of office. Still, "marriages performed by an employee of the clerk's office who reasonably appears to be a deputy clerk with authority to perform marriages are valid," according to a 1925 state Court of Appeals ruling cited by Curran.

When the state code was recodified in 1984 to require the swearing of marriage-performing assistant clerks, Pumphrey acknowledged, "I missed it."

Pumphrey, a Democrat who is up for reelection to a sixth term, said the flap over Pannebecker's status is political. "This has been going on since 1986," he said, questioning why it had become an issue only recently.

Republican Margaret D. Rappaport, who is challenging Pumphrey in the general election, asked in a letter to The Washington Post, "If such callous disregard is shown for something as sacred as a marriage, doesn't it make you wonder about the status of the deed to your home?"