Back in 1973, the state legislature abolished the fee system for justices of the peace, and required that the county commissioners in Texas’ 254 counties budget salaries for the JPs.
It appears that the legislature overlooked one fee – the marriage fee paid to the judges. It has become a very lucrative sideline.
Dallas County JPs earn very good salaries: the four justices with downtown offices earn $23,928 per annum. The other judges earn from $18,365 down to $14,225. They also receive car allowances up to $150 per month.
Marriages in Dallas County have been averaging about 16,000 per year, with a hefty percentage of the ceremonies performed by JPs. No one knows exactly how many are married by the justices – the county doesn’t run a tabulation on that. But the county clerk’s office reports that many couples who get a marriage license go right to one of the JPs in the county courthouse. JP Robert Cole estimated he marries “several hundred per year.”
Figuring that Cole charges $10 to unite the beloved, that comes to $2,000 extra per year.
According to County Judge John Whittington, JPs are not supposed to set an exact fee for marriages. “If the couple asks, he can tell them they can make whatever contribution they would like,” Whittington said.
That’s not entirely the way it works. A telephone check of the JPs in Dallas County revealed that while most stick to the “contribution” theory, some do not. Cole asks for a flat $10. Theran Ward in Garland charges $15. W. J. Richburg in Oak Cliff charges about $15, and Lloyd G. Russell in Irving asks the top price of $20.
There’s nothing illegal about the charge, says Judge Ron Champion, executive director of the justice of the peace training school at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
“It’s proper for a JP to charge for marriage ceremonies, because it’s outside the normal responsibilities of any judge. I understand it is a very lucrative business in the urban areas. Some of the judges make $15,000 per year from marriages,” Judge Champion said. (He’s a municipal judge and does not have the power to perform marriages.)
Judge Champion said that since the Legislature abolished the fee system, it would require a change of statute to include performing marriage ceremonies in the job description of JPs.