Courthouse Wedding Bell$?

Judge Garcia still #1

EDINBURG – The Advance News Journal has published several stories the past few years about marriage ceremonies that take place inside the Hidalgo County Courthouse – which judge is conducting the most?

Recently, an Advance News reader phoned in asking us for a 2017 update.

According to courthouse records, nothing has changed, at least going back to calendar year 2014: County Courtat-Law #6 Judge Albert Garcia continues to lead the pack among both state District Judges and County-Court-at-Law Judges for performing the largest number of marriage ceremonies inside their respective courtrooms.

Through August of this year, Judge Albert Garcia has chalked up 490 marriages.

As in years past, Garcia’s closest second is state District Judge Mario Ramirez, who has conducted 262 courthouse marriages during the same time period: January 2017 through August 2017.

At approximately $100 a pop, the weddings add up, all of which the judges get to keep, separate and apart from their salary, even though it’s taxpayer dollars running the lights and air con, and paying for their respective bailiffs’ paychecks.

From Garcia’s 490 marriages, and Ramirez’s 262 marriages (all through August 2017), the county courthouse nuptial numbers quickly drop. The next closest in line, batting third in the marital lineup, is County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Gonzalez, with 157 marriages performed through August 2017. Placing fourth, state District Judge Juan Partida: 103 marriages.

The rest of the judges inside the Hidalgo County courthouse, both state district and county court-at-law, are all in the double-digit range when it comes to marriages performed during that same time period.

The Reason Why

During an interview with this newspaper that took place in the summer of 2015, County Court-at-Law #6 Judge Albert Garcia said the reason he was performing the most marriages was simple: he was at the courthouse more than any of his peers.

“I’m the only one, and you can ask around to all the attorneys, anybody – I’m the only (judge) that’s here Monday through Friday from 8 to 5.”

A request for an interview with Judge Garcia the following year went un-answered.

The bulk of the courthouse weddings take place on Fridays, said Garcia, and according to him, he is the judge who is primarily on the courthouse premises that day. He named two other judges who are also in attendance on Fridays, but they don’t like to perform weddings, he said, during that 2015 interview. So the job of performing a marriage falls largely on his shoulders, he said.

During that 2015 interview, Judge Garcia blamed two judges for spreading the malicious rumor that he was using his bailiff (who has since retired; replaced by another) to troll for marriages in the hallways of the courthouse as it were, since each marriage is worth approximately $100, and the judge performing them gets to pocket the money, as previously mentioned.

Judge Garcia denied that allegation two years ago and said that it simply wasn’t true. In fact, during that 2015 interview, Garcia said one judge had even hired outside help to come into the courthouse and give his bailiff a helping hand.

Here’s how the deal allegedly works: people show up at the county courthouse and go to the county clerk’s office, step up to the marriage window, show the required documents to the clerk (all requirements can be found online), and get their marriage license. Both applicants must be present with proper ID. No online access? Then prospective brides and grooms may call 318-2100.

Once the marriage license is in hand, the happy couple has to wait 72 hours to get hitched unless they can find a state district judge or a county court-at-law judge who is willing to waive the time restriction and marry them on the spot.

There is one other route to avoid the 72-hour wait: one of those two types of judges (state district or county courtat-law) can sign a waiver the same day the couple gets a marriage license so that they can get married immediately by anyone authorized to legally perform a wedding in the state of Texas. In other words, the judge signing the waiver doesn’t have to be the one who performs the wedding.

In years past, some bailiffs, according to several courthouse sources, would jockey for position outside the county clerk’s office. There was even a bench on which they could sit, with the bailiffs lined up like taxicabs waiting alongside the airport curb. When they saw a couple at the marriage window, according to courthouse chisme (gossip), the first in line would wait for them to walk back into the lobby and ask them if they were looking to get married right away. If they said, yes, the bailiff would lead them to their respective judge where they could obtain a waiver and immediately tie the knot: You may now kiss the bride.

Once the bailiff who was first in line found a couple looking to get married that same day, the next one in line would slide down the bench to take the number-one spot. Not all of the judges used their respective bailiffs in such a manner, but enough did for courtroom watchers to take notice and make comment. None of them kind. After all, taxpayers were paying the tab – utilities, bailiff salaries, etc. – so why should the judges get to pocket the money on a personal level? Why were the bailiffs sitting downstairs shilling for marriage dollars, so to speak, as opposed to working the courtroom beat? Even if there wasn’t a trial or hearing underway, surely there was a better way to spend their time, or so the criticism went as tossed their way.

If you take, for example, 600 marriages performed in a single calendar year, and multiply that number by approximately $100, you’re talking $60k.

That taxi-cab scenario is no longer in place as of 2015, according to at least one legal source familiar with courthouse etiquette. At least not on the first floor. It’s now moved to the second floor, according to our source; and it’s not so blatant, except for allegedly one bailiff who mainly sticks to the second floor but on occasion, moves to the first floor and hangs out near the stairs.

If a couple looking to get hitched on the spot hops the county courthouse elevator or climbs the steps looking for a judge on the second floor, provided the judges on the first floor were out of pocket, there would be the bailiff happy to greet them – step right this way; the judge is waiting.

It wasn’t the bailiffs’ idea, according to our source. They weren’t making any money off of the $100 marriage fee, and standing around wasn’t easy on the feet since the first-floor bench had been removed (2015). That money all went to the judiciary. The judge was their boss, however, and if they were instructed to troll for marriages, what’s a bailiff to do, but say, yes, your honor.

As a follow-up to the courthouse-marriage story The Advance published last year, however, based on courthouse records, County Courtat-Law #6 Judge Albert Garcia is still leading the judicial pack this year, through August, with 490 marriages under his judicial belt, far outpacing state District Judge Mario Ramirez’s 262.

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