Cobb judge says oversight led to wedding fee collection
by Jon Gillooly
January 11, 2013 12:28 AM | 5491 views | 9 9 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb Chief Magistrate Frank Cox
Cobb Chief Magistrate Frank Cox
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MARIETTA — Cobb Chief Magistrate Judge Frank Cox blamed an oversight on a long-standing practice that caused his court to collect wedding fees that should never have been charged in the first place.

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.”
Comments
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Lib in Cobb
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January 14, 2013
Judge Cox is a fair and honest man, a simple oversight cannot be twisted into anything other than an oversight. Judge Cox ruled very fairly in my favor a few years ago, when I filed criminal charges against a neighbor involving barking, vicious dogs. The neighbor was essentially put on probation for six months. The dogs are now quiet. Thank you Judge Cox.

I don't get Christmas cards from the neighbor anymore, I don't understand it.
Do the Math
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January 13, 2013
Looks like the IRS needs to see how much of that $150.00-$250.00 , cash only, “Pocket Money” was reported as taxable income. If it was not reported, it looks like a good case of tax evasion. The Board of Commissioners needs to do a forensic audit at Cox’s expense and track all the money that is going through Magistrate Court including wedding fees. I find it interesting that the $30.00 onsite fee could only be paid in cash. The Judicial Qualifications Commission needs to investigate to find out how much money was taken from these individuals, and Cox should be prosecuted by the District Attorney and ordered to pay restitution. After all, he has been taking this money for 12 years.

DO THE MATH!!

You be the Judge
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January 13, 2013
If the $150.00 is a "base fee", then it should not be "pocketed", but placed in the General Fund. What the judges (Public Officers) did was to receive a forced gratuity, (they made the citizens an offer they could not refuse) which by law is extortion. Cox is the ring leader, because he created, established his own illegal criteria, and I'll bet you he determined which judges got to perform the weddings, thereby extorting his own employees as well.

Read what the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A.)below and see what it has to say. O.C.G.A. 45-11-5 (2010)

45-11-5. Extortion generally

(a) As used in this Code section, the term "extortion" means an unlawful taking by a public officer, under color of his office, from any person of any money or thing of value that is not due to him or more than is due to him.

(b) Any public officer who shall by himself, his deputy, his agent, or other person employed by him be guilty of extortion in demanding or receiving other and greater fees than by law are allowed him shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be dismissed from office.

He should be immediately removed from the bench and criminally charged.

the truth
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January 13, 2013
Judge Cox needs to tell the truth about the wedding money and Judge Bloom being told to resign or be fired.Everyone at the courthouse knows what really happened.This begs for a Grand jury investigation.
Where's My Money!
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January 12, 2013
A Cobb Magistrate married me 15 years ago. Where do I go to get my money back, with interest? I want my money back! Has anyone filed a lawsuit on this? Oversight, my eye! Would it be extortion for anyone else?
Be Fair
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January 12, 2013
Since those fees should never have been charged, the court should return the fees to the people that paid them.
Just Sayin'....
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January 11, 2013
For those of you interested, $80,000 part-time income for our judges. This is unacceptable when we supposedly have a back log in our courts and these are salaried positions!!! In the corporate world, if you are on salary you work until you get the job done....not 40 and then go to your part-time job.
In the Know
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January 11, 2013
I think Judge Cox is being disingenuous. He knows full well that Judge Bloom's retirement is directly related to the wedding fee issue. I find it disconcerting that a judge would fail to tell the truth - however, I am not surprised in this instance.
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