HOUSTON — During the one year that city of Houston municipal courts have offered wedding ceremonies, Associate Presiding Judge Maria Casanova has learned some lessons not gleaned in court: Men tear up more quickly than women. Both shorts and suits count as altar attire. And, yes, sometimes you can tell when a marriage isn’t going to last.
For judges most often in the business of handling traffic tickets and chiding scofflaws, waxing poetic about marital bliss and parsing ceremony details has marked something of a departure.
It’s also been a joy, Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle said.
“I’d much rather marry people than find someone guilty,” she told the Houston Chronicle.
In 2009, the state Legislature granted municipal court judges the ability to marry couples. With the power finally vested in them, many judges started officiating weddings off-site.
Last year, Casanova — or as Hartle teases, the “love judge” — pushed for Houston’s municipal courts to finally offer the service. The mayor signed off, and Brian Leija, an administrative specialist with the court, soon found himself in the role of part-time wedding planner.
Couples must come with marriage license in hand, at least 72 hours after obtaining the document but not more than 90 days later. Weddings are scheduled in advance and cost $100 on a weekday, and most ceremonies last between five and 15 minutes. At a time when the average wedding runs about $30,000, a municipal court ceremony offers a frugal but formal way to wed.
For Hartle, the ceremonies also have offered a new source of department revenue without adding any staff costs. Since November last year, Houston’s municipal court judges have married more than 630 couples.
This fall, Mayor Annise Parker asked all city departments to identify a one percent savings, either by cutting costs or adding revenue. As part of the municipal courts’ plan, Hartle decided to start offering Saturday weddings, one Saturday a month for now but likely more as the year goes on. A Saturday wedding costs the couple $50 extra. Come Valentine’s Day, Hartle said, they plan to do a big advertising push and offer a festive day of ceremonies.
It’s hardly a budget cure-all, but it’s a small boon that nobody gripes about. Plus, there are the stories.
Casanova, who presides over many of the weddings, said some are so good she started writing them down. There’s the couple and their witnesses who all came decked out in Texans jerseys. Halloween was “crazy,” Hartle chimed in, and left it at that. There was the bride who didn’t want her husband to see her before the ceremony, so she camped out in the bathroom. Another couple showed up in Converse sneakers and T-shirts, the clothes they wore the day they first met.
There are a lot of heartwarming moments, too. Hartle recalled a couple who recently brought her to tears. A man who was marrying a woman with a daughter wrote two sets of vows, promising to be both a good husband and a caring stepfather.
Couples come in for all sorts of reasons, though convenience and cost typically top the list.
For Nicole Sowell and Eddie Hudson, a self-described quiet couple who don’t care for the limelight, a big wedding sounded more like a chore than a celebration. And so Sowell searched online, found the city now offered ceremonies, and they set a date. It happened to be the day before Hudson’s birthday, but really the timing was a matter of convenience. They both were free that Friday in December.
The couple met through a friend eight years ago and live together in northwest Houston. Getting married was simply the next chapter, no frills needed.
“I wanted it just the two of us,” said Sowell, 31. “Just something intimate.”
On Dec. 19, Sowell and Hudson stood hand-in-hand in Hartle’s office overlooking downtown, Sowell wearing a pale blouse, Hudson a maroon shirt and shy smile. At the foot of Hartle’s desk, Casanova presided over the ceremony in her black judge’s robes. It was likely Casanova’s last ceremony — she’s set to retire at the end of the year.
“Be in the moment,” Casanova said, recalling that she doesn’t remember much from her wedding ceremony because she was so nervous. “I want you to breathe, take it in.”
The ceremony moved quickly, no more than five minutes.
“May you be blessed with a lifetime of happiness and a home of warmth and understanding,” Casanova said. “May you always be able to talk things over, to confide in each other.”
Leija, the court administrative assistant, helps write the scripts and vows, often repurposing phrases he finds particularly lovely or meaningful from one wedding for others. Options are key, Hartle and Leija agreed.
“You gotta get something neutral, not too religious,” Hartle said. “But you want the solemnity of the moment to be captured.”
There are other sensitivities to keep in mind, too — in some cultures it’s taboo to kiss at the ceremony. Some couples have witnesses and some don’t, others opt not to use rings.
For Hudson and Sowell, there were rings but no witnesses. They wanted a low-key affair.
Hudson fumbled for Sowell’s left hand when it came to the rings, picking up her right hand first, laughing, then clasping her left.
Afterward, they said it was exactly what they wanted.
“She just completes me,” Hudson said. “This was all we needed.” — (AP)