Zurik: State senator calls for investigation of Orleans judges

Zurik: State senator calls for investigation of Orleans judges

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A state senator is calling for the Judiciary Commission to investigate judges who overcharged New Orleanians for weddings.

When we scroll through every wedding officiated by Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan, we find a few couples living in New Orleans East - part of which is represented by State Senator Sharon Hewitt.

'Anyone that isn't following the law... You know, there should be an investigation and perhaps consequences for doing that," Hewitt tells us in a recent interview.

The law allows judges in New Orleans' First and Second City Court to charge $5 for a wedding at the courthouse. But in First City Court, three judges charged $80. In Second City Court, at the Algiers courthouse, Judge Anderson-Trahan charged even more, $100.

"That's clearly a problem," Hewitt says. "No matter who you are, you have to follow the law. And if the law says $5, then I think you have to charge $5. So, anyone that's not charging $5 is breaking the law, I would assume, in my opinion.

Hewitt wants a state commission to investigate. The Judiciary Commission is an investigative board that reports and makes recommendations to the La. Supreme Court.

A Supreme Court spokesperson told us by email, "I would not have any knowledge of nor could confirm or deny the existence of any Judiciary Commission investigation."

"It goes to the integrity of the judicial system," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman, who says he was outraged by our findings. "They are not supposed to be making money on the side for functions they perform."

If they choose to investigate, the Judiciary Commission may look at a recent question we raised.

On her financial disclosure filing submitted to the Supreme Court, Judge Anderson-Trahan claims she earned less than $25,000 in wedding fees.  But we found out she officiated 473 weddings last year.

Remember, she charged $100 a wedding. So, if you do the math, it's possible she made $47,000, possibly misreporting her income to the supreme court.

"You've pointed out a lot of, maybe, pieces that don't add up," Sen. Hewitt tells us. "You know, the reporting on the personal financial disclosure statements - the math on that doesn't add up with the number of weddings that have been done. And if you do the math, a hundred dollars per wedding, that doesn't add up to something less than $25,000. So, there's enough questions I think about... you know, is the income being fairly reported in the personal financial disclosure statements? Is the income being reported and taxed? You know, those are all good questions, I think, to ask.

The law is clear that these city court judges cannot make more than an Orleans civil or criminal court judge.  But with additional wedding income, all four have.

"That's clearly a violation of the law," Hewitt says.  "And that would lead one to believe then that the money collected was not intended to go to the judges; it was intended to go to the office."

Joel Friedman thinks the judges should return the money to the court, and to the couples who were overcharged.

"I understand from a fairness standpoint, that it's fair for those constituents to get their money back," Hewitt says. "Exactly how you would do that, that's a legal issue, I think, that's maybe beyond my pay grade."

Hewitt thinks the legislature needs to tweak the law and says the $5 fee is likely outdated. "Perhaps we should look at, is it consistent, you know, across all jurisdictions," she wonders. "For example, why are we charging more in in Alexandria than we are in Orleans parish? You know, because legislatively we did something."

But until the legislature does change something, the law is the law. And Hewitt says it's clear to her that these four judges failed to follow it.

"It is the law of the land," she insists, "and every citizen is obligated to follow the law."

We requested interviews with all four judges featured in our investigation; all four rejected our requests.

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For earlier reports in our Misjudged series, go to FOX8Live.com/wedding.

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