Among the many powers Justices of the Peace (JP) possess, the ability to perform weddings is being embraced by Ector County JPs due to its lucrative upside, allowing the judges to potentially pocket thousands of dollars in cash each year – and several JPs appear to have concealed that cash from state ethics disclosures that are required by law.
On Ector County’s official government website for each JP, a PDF link is provided detailing the rate and terms that each JP charges (except for one) to perform the ceremony of matrimony, listing $60 for in house weddings at the courthouse during regular business hours, or $150 off-premises and the rate can go up from there, depending on the circumstance.
Notably, each JP emphasizes that the fees are to be paid in “cash only”, except for Precinct 1 JP Judge Terry Lange, whose wedding fee file does not list a fee amount.
A quick call to Judge Lange’s office confirmed, however, that Judge Lange charges the highest rates among the JPs, at $80 for weddings in the courthouse during regular business hours and $200 plus for weddings outside regular hours or off-premises.
All money earned from performing marriages, even during regular business hours for which JPs receive a government salary, is kept by each JP, with county taxpayers being on the hook for facility expenses used in support of the justice’s private side business and their salary while they are not at work.
The amount charged for each wedding may seem insignificant at first but acting on multiple tips from personnel within the courthouse, public records were requested from the Ector County Clerk’s office revealing just how many weddings each JP performs each year going back to 2017, and the numbers were impressive.
Marriages Performed by Ector County JP’s 2017
- Precinct 1 Judge Terry Lange, 300 weddings
- Precinct 2 Judge Christopher Clark, 0 (Never performed any wedding ceremonies)
- Precinct 3 Judge Sherwood Kupper, 155 weddings
- Precinct 4, Judge Eddy Spivey, 320 weddings
Marriages Performed by Ector County JP’s 2018
- Precinct 1, Judge Terry Lange, 250 weddings
- Precinct 2, Judge Melissa Walden, 118 weddings
- Precinct 3, Judge Sherwood Kupper, 209 weddings
- Precinct 4, Judge Eddy Spivey, 267 weddings
Marriages Performed by Ector County JP’s 2019
- Precinct 1, Judge Terry Lange, 204 weddings
- Precinct 2, Judge Melissa Walden, 194 weddings
- Precinct 3, Judge Sherwood Kupper, 140 weddings
- Precinct 4, Judge Eddy Spivey, 216 weddings
Marriages Performed by Ector County JP’s 2020
- Precinct 1, Judge Terry Lange, 169 weddings
- Precinct 2, Judge Melissa Walden, 143 weddings
- Precinct 3, Judge Sherwood Kupper, 125 weddings
- Precinct 4, Judge Eddy Spivey, 161 weddings
Each JP has performed between 118 and 300 weddings per year since 2017 according to data from the sampling. Judge Walden is excluded from the 2017 data since she first assumed office in 2018.
To estimate exactly how much each JP might be taking home in cold hard cash, simply multiply the number of weddings times the base charge of $60 “cash only.”
|JP||Number of Weddings 2017-2020||x $60 Fee|
It should be noted that if Judge Lange’s marriages are multiplied by his base rate of $80, then his share increases to $73,840.00 if he charged that amount for each wedding.
These numbers are only estimates of what the judges may be taking home based on public records. But as a source of income, state law requires JPs to disclose the source on annual financial statements.
The ethics disclosure forms are required to be completed in detail each year, however, a review of the personal financial statements on file for multiple years in question revealed that only one JP, Judge Eddy Spivey, disclosed his income from wedding services as required during that time.
This would mean three judges, Terry Lange, Missi Walden, and Sherwood Kupper, each did not disclose potentially tens of thousands of dollars in cash income from their private wedding businesses.
Odessa Headlines reached out to each judge for comment, asking why income from wedding services was not disclosed on multiple years of personal financial statements.
In addition, the judges were asked if they were retaining the entire fee for the wedding service, or if the judges were using a portion of their proceeds to pay their court staff to fill out and file court paperwork relating to the wedding ceremony on behalf of the clients.
All three JPs, including Judges Terry Lange, Missi Walden, and Sherwood Kupper did not respond to our requests for comment.
Odessa resident Kris Crow said he has been frustrated with what he says is low productivity coming from the JP courts and said that judges shouldn’t be allowed to run a side business at taxpayers’ expense when taxpayers expect them to be doing the job they are paid to do.
Crow was referencing the fact that Justices of the Peace draw roughly a $70,000 salary, in addition to a variety of benefits.
“If any other employee did what they are doing they would be fired,” Crow said, adding further “county property should only be used for the benefit of county government and private enterprises should not be allowed to be run during working hours.”
Crow has been a vocal critic of the JPs in the past.
According to the Texas Ethics Commission, the law requires financial statements to be filed with specified information, which means that information should be included on the form when it is filed – in this case, sources of income.
Judges also carry an additional burden of ethical responsibility, with the canons of judicial conduct requiring judges to file financial and other public reports “as required by law,” such as disclosing all sources of income.
A publication on financial disclosures by the Texas Association of Counties indicates that in some instances, failing to file the required disclosures can carry both civil and criminal penalties.
While other judges in the Ector County Courthouse equally share the power to perform weddings the same as JPs, some indicated they have decided to decline performing weddings to focus on their primary job or provide the service free of charge and view the duty as a public service for which they are already compensated by taxpayers to do.
The practice of Justices of the Peace performing a multitude of weddings isn’t unique to Ector County, however, with one news story detailing how a Harris County JP performed over 11,000 weddings for 5 years, making hundreds of thousands in profit.