Zurik: Judges' wedding fees draw scrutiny from legal community
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Some legal observers are keeping a close eye on an unfolding FOX 8 investigation of four Orleans Parish judges who are pocketing as much as $25,000 a year in cash - even though the law says they shouldn't.
"It goes to the integrity of the judicial system," notes one observer, Tulane University law professor Joel Friedman.
New Orleans First and Second City Court judges charge a fee for officiating weddings in their courtroom during the workday. But nothing in the law says they can keep that money as extra compensation. In fact, one part of the law specifically says a City Court judge can't earn more than a Criminal or Civil Court judge.
But all four City Court judges are earning more, because they're pocketing the fees they charging for weddings.
"I think this raises significant questions," says Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University and an expert on legal ethics. "The compensation statute is very clear that these City Court judges are not supposed to get compensation more than a district judge."
Our investigation found New Orleans City Court judges have been keeping this money for at least a decade.
"This practice has been going on for as long as anyone can remember," Ciolino says. "And I'm sure the judges sitting there now just continued what those before them [had] been doing. I don't think anybody's stepped back, until perhaps now, to look at the statutory scheme to see that there really is a significant question about whether this is appropriate."
The law allows these City Court judges, who primarily handle small claims cases, to officiate weddings in the courthouse.
But it seems the judges are not following yet another part of the law. It states they can charge a $5 fee for weddings in the courthouse during work hours. But in First City Court on the East Bank, judges charge $80; at Second City Court in Algiers, Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan charges $100.
"The statute's very clear on that, that if the wedding takes place in the courthouse then the judge and the clerk should not be charging more than a flat $5 fee," Ciolino confirms.
Over the years, judges potentially overcharged hundreds of thousands of dollars, keeping that money.
In an email from their spokesperson, the City Court judges pointed out the legislature created that $5 fee in 1960. But the judges don't have the authority to change the law or account for inflation.
Regardless, if you plug that $5 into an inflation calculator, the charge would be $42 in today's dollars - half or less of the $80 or $100 fees these judges collect and keep.
"This is a matter that, if investigated, would be investigated by the Judiciary Commission, through the special counsel's office," Ciolino says, "and would go through a fairly lengthy investigatory and, if necessary, adjudicative process."
State law does allow a handful of judges to pocket wedding fees. But nothing in the law gives New Orleans' First and Second City Court judges that authority - which could pose a problem for these four people elected to enforce the law.
The judges of First and Second City Court have refused our request to do an on-camera interview, and they have offered no response to our initial reporting Wednesday night.
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