Last Wednesday, Judge Dale Gorczynski, a justice of the peace in Harris County, heard 19 eviction cases, sent 147 traffic and misdemeanor cases to trial and presided over five weddings: Three for same-sex couples and two for heterosexual couples.
It was the first time gay couples outnumbered straight ones in his north Houston office. The judge estimated that during the two peak wedding season months since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage about 10 to 20 percent of the couples he has married are gay or lesbian.
But that trend is not playing out with at least three of the county’s 16 justices of the peace who previously performed weddings but no longer do. Judges Laryssa Korduba, Russ Ridgway and Jeff Williams, all Republicans who officiated weddings prior to the decision, are taking down their shingles, although they have done so gradually. These judges, who operate in Humble, near Bellaire and Addicks, still adjudicate criminal, civil and traffic proceedings, but despite phone prompts and online links at their offices that indicate otherwise, marrying couples is no longer among services they offer, staff members confirmed last week.
Korduba performed her last ceremony Aug. 7, according to the county clerk’s data through Aug. 20. That data shows that Ridgway last officiated Aug. 11; and Williams held his last wedding Aug. 14. The county clerk, Stan Stanart, said Tuesday these JPs performed weddings after the Supreme Court ruling, but in a limited capacity. Stanart said Ridgway told him, “I had these commitments beforehand.” The others made similar comments: “That’s what Laryssa [Korduba] told me, too, and Jeff [Williams]. They had commitments. They booked them up beforehand. But there are no new bookings. That’s what I’ve been told at this time,” Stanart said.
To be clear, these JPs will not be breaking the law or shirking their duties by halting weddings, legal experts say. In fact, they are opting to forego thousands of dollars of personal income, based on the rates they charged in recent months. Justices of the peace may keep this income. They have complete discretion to set their rates. Costs range from $50 to $400 per ceremony.
Although the Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion this month stating judges may not refuse to perform marriages altogether based on personal, moral or religious objections to same sex marriage, officiating weddings in Texas is a choice.
In other words, all JPs in Texas may marry same-sex couples, but the law does not oblige them to marry anyone, according to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.
As far as turning away same-sex couples, Ryan said, “As long as they are not doing any weddings they can make that choice. If they do any marriages, they have to do all the marriages.”
Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, agreed: If you choose to opt out of marrying all couples, that is perfectly legal. If you marry anyone, you may not discriminate, she said.
“If they feel this strongly, at least they’re being fair about it,” said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, adding he thought, “They are on the wrong side of history.”
Daniel Williams, spokesman for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender rights group Texas Wins, said he applauded judges who abstained from marrying anyone if their personal beliefs guided them to pick and chose who to marry.
“To the JP who says, ‘In order to follow the law, I need to set aside the optional power of my office to perform weddings,’ Kudos.”
I agree. I’m glad that at least around here none of the JPs have tried to be jerks in the way that some county clerks were, to their detriment. I think they’re missing out – my dad was a judge for 14 years in New York, and he always says that performing marriages was the best part of the job – but it’s their choice. I sincerely hope some of them come to the realization that they’re no better off this way and get themselves back in the game. Everyone would benefit if they do.