Until last month, couples who asked the court to perform marriage ceremonies were charged a $30 fee if the ceremony was conducted at the courthouse. The judge also would charge them a $150 fee if they wanted to be married off-site, Cox said.
Yet last month Cox said he was contacted by a representative of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which had received an anonymous complaint about the practice of charging wedding fees.
“They said cease charging any money for on-site weddings,” Cox said.
In response, Cox removed from the court’s website the statement advertising court wedding ceremonies as a $30 cash-only fee. Cox also removed the statement, “The magistrate will also perform weddings outside the office by appointment. The base fee for this service is $150.”
Georgia law allows judges to accept tips for performing marriage ceremonies during non-office hours.
State code section 19-3-49, titled “Acceptance by Judges of Tips, Consideration or Gratuities,” states: “In addition to any compensation otherwise provided by law, any judge who performs a marriage ceremony at any time, except normal office hours, may receive and retain as personal income any tip, consideration, or gratuity voluntarily given to such judge for performing such marriage ceremony.”
Yet a voluntary tip is far different from listing on the court website that mandatory base fees for off-site weddings are $150.
The Journal asked Cox about this listed charge and whether he agreed it was worded incorrectly.
“In retrospect it probably was, yes,” Cox said on Thursday.
Cox was also asked why his website advertised a fee.
“I would say oversight,” Cox said. “You know, I did not draft the language on there, but ultimately I’m responsible for the language on there. Perhaps I did not scrutinize it as closely as I should have.”
Cox’s administrative assistant, Karie Daniel, said for marriage ceremonies performed at the courthouse that were charged the $30 fee, 2,795 ceremonies were performed with an amount collected of $83,850 for 2010; 2,961 ceremonies were performed in 2011 with an amount collected of $88,840; and 2,461 ceremonies were performed in 2012 with an amount collected of $73,830.
Those dollars were transferred to the county’s general fund, Cox said.
Daniel said for off-site weddings judges performed for a base fee of $150, there were 142 ceremonies in 2010, 186 ceremonies in 2011 and 206 in 2012.
Daniel explained what she meant by “base fee.”
“Whenever anyone calls, it’s a base of $150 that’s the fee,” she said. “Sometimes if it was outside of the county, depending on what the judge agreed to do it, the price could fluctuate.”
The range, she said, “was under $200. Between $150 and $200 depending on location.”
Cox said that revenue was pocketed by the judge who performed the ceremony as his or her own personal income.
Cox said while he has removed the language advertising off-site weddings by judges at $150 each from the county’s website, he now leaves it up to the judge and the couple being married to decide whether the judge will receive a gratuity as the law allows.
“We are now providing the names of the judges that work here that wanted to volunteer to perform weddings off-site, and we provided a way for the people to contact them directly and discuss a location, time and place with those judges, individually,” Cox said. “You go on our website, and it talks about off-site weddings or to arrange a wedding, and it gives you the name and contact information for the judges, and they now are able to contact that judge directly and set up the arrangements.”
Cox said when he came into office in 2001, the court had been charging a $15 dollar fee for on-site weddings.
“And I increased it to $30, but how long it had been before that I am not sure,” he said. “I contacted the county attorney’s office, and I asked them about the permissibility of charging the $30 administrative fee, and they’re the ones that researched the issue and advised they did not see anything inappropriate or improper for charging the administrative fee. The off-site issue was not discussed with them.”
Magistrate Judge Joan Bloom, 56, announced her retirement on Nov. 30 after 13 years on the bench. Her last day was Dec. 31.
Asked if the wedding fee issue was related to her retirement, Cox said, “Not that I know of.”