JPus in the News

Connecticut Post: 3/23/2024

Bridgeport grapples with city hall marriage glut, unregulated justices of the peace

By , Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT  —  Councilman Jorge Cruz has a simple solution to the issue of justices of the peace conducting business in the Margaret Morton Government Center on Broad Street.

“Don’t do marriages at city hall. Come up with another place,” Cruz said.

Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration has begun grappling with problems involving weddings at the government center, where couples go to obtain a marriage license from the vital records office off of the first-floor lobby.

Ganim’s new chief administrative officer, Thomas Gaudett, on Monday issued a memorandum warning municipal employees who are also justices of the peace or religious officials that they cannot officiate over couples’ unions while on the clock. Gaudett said he was prompted to act by complaints he and his predecessor, Janene Hawkins, received about several Bridgeport staffers, who he declined to name.

But that is just one issue the city is looking to address. There have also been persistent allegations that some members of the 20-person, all-Democratic City Council who are justices of the peace wait around outside of vital records soliciting couples and performing on-the-spot weddings.

Cruz, who represents downtown and the South End and is himself a justice of the peace, said he has witnessed first hand how much business some of his colleagues drum up at the government center, but also declined to name names.

“I’ve been a justice of the peace for four years. I said, ‘How you guys get all these marriages? I’ve never been called,'” Cruz said. “They’ve got a whole assembly line.

And apparently the nuptials business downtown is booming. Gaudett earlier this week acknowledged there are days and times when vital records’ staff are overwhelmed by people seeking marriage licenses, many from out of town.

The justice of the peace is, technically, a professional.

“I think there are a multitude of issues that have been raised regarding the vital statistics office and the way we handle marriages in the city,” Gaudett had said.

Hearst Connecticut Media Group asked to review recent marriage licenses to assess which of the the city’s around 300 justices of the peace have been getting most of the wedding work. But, according to vital records staff and Ganim’s office, a Freedom of Information Act request must first be submitted because those documents contain sensitive information that will need to be redacted before copies are made public.

Former state Rep. Christopher Caruso, a justice of the peace, has also been alarmed about the marriage activity at the government center. Caruso is close to Gaudett and has been known to sometimes offer advice to the mayor’s office.

He said there needs to be a level playing field imposed for marriages, and that means forbidding all justices of the peace from soliciting at the Margaret Morton Center.

“The problem is city employees have an advantage over other justices. They’re in the building, interacting with the public. … So when a couple comes in, an employee comes up and says, ‘Here’s my card and I can marry you at noon at my lunch break,'”  Caruso said.

He also said no one, including the alleged council members, should be chasing after couples within the government center for their business. Caruso said other professions like lawyers, accountants and therapists would not be allowed to sit in the lobby waiting for potential clients to enter.

“City hall is open to the public, but it’s not for private businesses to be transacting their services,” he said. “The justice of the peace is, technically, a professional. … They are a business. People go to them for services just like for an attorney or anyone else.”

But, in fact, at least in Connecticut justices of the peace lack much oversight. Under state law the bulk of them are appointed every four years by their respective municipality’s Democratic and Republican town committees, which frequently results in politically connected individuals getting the title. Bridgeport’s online list of active justices includes plenty of elected officials and political operatives, including Ganim, Gaudett, state senators and representatives, council members and other familiar names.

And while they are supposed to follow a manual published by the Secretary of the State’s office, Tara Chozet, spokesperson for Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, this week specified, “Our involvement with justices of the peace is mostly ministerial. … It’s not anything we regulate or have written regulations for.”

JPs want training to be required to raise the bar

So, for example, there are no fee limitations for officiating marriages. Loretta Jay, head of the state’s Justice of the Peace Association, said a survey she released in late December found that justices charge from $50 on the low end to hundreds of dollars per wedding.

Jay said while her organization provides members professional development and networking, she acknowledged there’s no real regulation or expectations of what they do or don’t do.

“We’ve polled justices of the peace, members and non-members, and overwhelmingly they want training to be required to raise the bar,” she said. “Those who take the responsibility seriously want to have minimal qualifications for marriage officiants.”

That is one area in particular that deserves scrutiny, Jay said, to help avoid incidents of human trafficking and marriage fraud between people marrying for legal citizenship who are not in a relationship.

“That’s been on the rise and that has been a real problem and is becoming a burden on municipal offices,” she said.

Told of the issues facing Bridgeport, Jay said she has heard complaints from elsewhere in Connecticut of justices scheduling meetings with couples at a city or town hall, only to have the couple “poached” by a rival on the scene. She is also aware of some justices charging very low fees but conducting multiple nuptials to make big money.

“A mass business — a large quantity rather than fewer, quality services,” she said.

Still, she is not aware of any municipalities outright banning marriages at their main government buildings in response such as Cruz suggests at the Margaret Morton Center.

There was an unsuccessful attempt last year, backed by the Justice of the Peace Association and by Thomas, to pass legislation aimed at improving how justices are appointed and perform.

According to one of its chief backers, state Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, herself a justice of the peace, it was drafted to address “a small fix” that arose out of how such positions are appointed in Manchester.

“(But) I spoke with Secretary of the State and they said, ‘We have some other fixes we’d like to enact. We’ve been wanting to clean up justices of the peace for a while.'”

A public hearing was held by the planning and development committee which DeGraw co-chairs. According to the written testimony she submitted in March, 2023, Thomas wanted a study “to analyze the methods Connecticut uses to determine the number of justices of the peace in each town, the portability of appointments across town lines, the selection process, and other issues.”

Chozet this week confirmed those “other issues” included training and regulations.

Jay also submitted testimony backing the proposed study. Among the issues, such as the need for more training, she said leaving much of the appointments to local Democratic and Republican committees is inherently unfair.

“Some leaders show favoritism with justice of the peace positions and retaliate against others by denying or not renewing justice of the peace status,” Jay wrote.

DeGraw said this week she would like to do more research and try to revive the bill in next year’s longer legislative session when there is more time. The Connecticut General Assembly is currently meeting but this is one of its biennial shorter years to convene.

 “I don’t think we necessarily have to control everything at the state level, but I do think there were some valid points made in the previous legislation of how to make the (justice of the peace) process run a little more smoothly,” she said. ““We do things a certain way in Connecticut. We are ‘the land of steady habits.’ It takes us a while to change things. We might need to see that bill a couple times before we figure out what’s best to do with it. But I certainly think there’s room to make some some changes.”

Cruz said the marriage issue in Bridgeport cannot wait.

“It’s a disgrace to the Margaret Morton Center and and looks very, very bad,” he said.

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