Zurik: Orleans judges may be breaking law with high wedding fees

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - "I kind of laughed, and I was like, sure, why not," Michelle English says, recalling her husband's marriage proposal.

When "why not" turned to "I do", Lael and Michelle English opted for convenience and quickness.

"We were just talking one day, and I said, 'pick a date and we'll go to courthouse,'" she says.

Michelle and Lael drove a few minutes away from their West Bank home to New Orleans Second City Court, the Algiers courthouse. The secretary told them the judge charged $100 and they must bring cash.

"I thought it was a little expensive," Mrs. English says.

Their 1:00 p.m. wedding started 90 minutes late after the judge returned from lunch.

"It wasn't that long at all," Lael English says, estimating five or 10 minutes.

Now, what they're learning from our investigation has them feeling ripped off and a Tulane law professor feeling outraged.

"This is shocking," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman.

Four New Orleans judges perform weddings in their courthouses:

And according to financial disclosure forms all four judges file with the La. Supreme Court, they keep that money as additional compensation - between $5,000 and $25,000 a year.

"They're not supposed to get salary supplements for doing this on the side," Friedman says. "They're not judges for hire - this is not 'Judge Judy'."

Friedman says no part of the law allows the judges to pocket this money.

"This is just a salary supplement that is unlawful," he says. "I don't know how they could explain otherwise, other than this is the tradition, everybody's always done it this way."

For proof, let's dig into state law.

First and Second City Court salaries cannot exceed the salaries of New Orleans criminal and civil judges. It's important to note, the law specifically defines salary as "the total annual compensation paid directly or indirectly from all sources for services as judge."

According to their financial disclosure forms, each Criminal District or Civil District judge makes $149,000 a year, as demonstrated by Civil District Judge Paulette Irons' disclosure form.

The forms for all four City Court judges are a bit different. When you total up their salaries, all four make roughly $149,000, about the same as those Criminal and Civil District judges. But under the "miscellaneous income" section, each judge reports an additional $5,000 to $25,000 in income from officiating weddings.

In fact, three of the judges specifically list the type of additional income as "judicial" or "judge".

Friedman says that money should absolutely remain with the courts, and not go in the judges' pockets

"I believe that they are misusing public funds," he says. "This is very serious. The amount of money is irrelevant - I don't care if it's $500. I would like to know why these judges believe they are entitled to payment for judicial functions they are performing in the courthouse during the workday. Where do they think they have the authority to get this additional supplement to their salary?

"If their salary isn't good enough they should stay in private practice," he adds.

According to financial disclosure forms, this has been going on for at least a decade - judges being paid as much as $25,000 more than the law allows.

"This is part of their job," Friedman insists. "They're doing it during the workday at their workplace."

State law does allow city judges in Alexandria and Monroe to receive additional compensation for officiating a wedding. Friedman says that strongly suggests, if the legislature intended judges in New Orleans to pocket wedding fees, it would have indicated so in the law.

"It cuts to the integrity of the judicial process," he says. "That's what's so upsetting about this."

The four judges declined our requests for on-camera interviews. And they tell us they have no record of how many weddings they officiate a year.

But there's more. A section of state law does address weddings in First and Second City Court. It says, for every marriage in the courthouse during office hours, there shall be a charge of $5.00.

We show Michelle and Lael English that state law. "Five bucks? Damn," Mrs. English says, we got shafted... I would like to know where the money's going."

When Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan married Michelle and Lael, she was earning her regular salary for the day, but also paying herself an additional $100 in cash - the wedding fee. So, according to the law, the judge overcharged Michelle and Lael $95 and possibly did the same to every other couple tying the knot.

That's just a small slice of the thousands of extra dollars Trahan takes in every year - money likely meant for the court but instead going into the pockets of judges, elected to uphold the law.

"You show me proof of that - that's wrong," Mr. English tells us. "There's no excuse for that, really. I don't feel good about it... how many people have they taken advantage of?"

The judges say state law - R.S. 13:2162, specifically - authorizes the performance of weddings in court and charging a fee to perform weddings. But Friedman argues this part of the law only allows the judges to charge $5.00 for a wedding in the court, not $80 or $100 - and the law doesn't say anywhere that they can keep the money as compensation.

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