Zurik: High wedding fee at Algiers courthouse infuriates Valentine bride
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Erin Earl wanted a quaint, intimate wedding. A friend told her about Second City Court, located in the Algiers courthouse. Her fiancé picked the date.
"He said, 'Well, let's just do it Valentine's Day 2018,'" she recalls. "Great, let's do that."
So, she called the office of Second City Court Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan, and her unfortunate experience began.
For one thing, Earl says, "The clerk was very rude." And days before the wedding, the judge's staff mistakenly sent her to the East Bank of Orleans Parish to get additional paperwork.
Then, on the wedding day, the judge was late. "There were other families showing up," Earl says. "Well, we all had a 1:00 appointment. We knocked on the door, because the judge's door was closed. No one came out or said anything, just said they would return at 1:30."
The line of Valentine's brides became impatient. "The brides are literally sweating their makeup out because so hot," she says.
What happened next made Erin Earl and her soon-to-be husband even hotter.
State law allows these judges to charge just $5 for a wedding in the courthouse. Typically, Judge Anderson-Trahan charges much more, $100.
But not this day. "I asked why I was being charged $180 and I was told because it was a holiday," Earl tells us. "It was Valentine's Day. I said, I was not aware that Valentine's Day was a true holiday. And she said, 'Well, that's our fee.'"
Anderson-Trahan and three of her counterparts at First City Court have been pocketing those wedding fees. Legal experts say that's against the law.
Earl started asking the other brides what they paid. "Another couple said that they were charged more," she says. "They were charged over $200."
Earl thought the fee would be lower - closer to the $100 that's normally charged at the Algiers courthouse. Relatives helped her get the extra money together.
"That seems very shady," Earl says of the higher fees.
And when she asked for a proof of payment, she was told, "They don't give receipts; they only deal in cash."
The judges, who are elected officials, refused our request for on-camera interviews.
"These judges are getting money, they are getting funding into their pocket for work they are performing which they are delegated to perform, by statute, in the courtroom, as a judge," says Joel Friedman, a law professor at Tulane University and a frequent watchdog of legal ethics. "And it is just inexplicable to me."
After our May 16 report on judicial wedding practices aired, we wanted to know if the judges still were keeping the wedding money as additional compensation, and whether they still were charging more than the law allowed. Their only comment on that: "No comment."
"I mean, these are judges, right?" Friedman wonders. "These are not taxi drivers, these are not waiters, right? They don't get paid by the job, they don't get tips - because, if that starts to be the process, then where does it end? Why is the performing of this judicial function any different than every other judicial function that they perform, whatever that is? What's the difference?"
This week we called the offices of all four judges and asked whether they were still performing weddings:
- Judge Anderson-Trahan's secretary told us they've stopped and referred us to Jefferson Parish for matrimonial services;
- On the East Bank, Judge Angelique Reed's secretary also said they weren't scheduling weddings;
- Judge Veronica Henry's office got our number and said they would call us back, but never did;
- And according to the person who answered in Judge Monique Morial's office, she still charges $80 and still is scheduling weddings.
"There's no accountability," Erin Earl says. "There's no oversight."
Mrs. Earl says she'd like to know if the judges have been paying taxes on this extra money, and says something needs to happen to these four people - elected to hold others accountable to the laws of this state.
Before our first story aired we asked if each judge reported 100 percent of the income they received to the Internal Revenue Service. A spokesperson's simple response was, "Fees are reported by each judge."
"I think there should be some type of investigation. I think there should be some type of legal action," she tells us. And I think there should at least be an apology to the brides and the families over the course of the years - I don't know how long this has been going on - that, you know, on behalf of the city that this should not have happened and we should not have been taking advantage of - just because we were in the midst of a joyous occasion."
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