Tying the Knot can be a tangle.
By: Lynne Tuohy, Courant Staff
NEW BRITAIN – Justices of the peace usually work in an atmosphere of joy and celebration, joining partners in marriage and civil unions amid a throng of well-wishers with champagne chilling in the background. But it can be harrowing work at times. Just ask Eleanor Tomaszewski of Middletown, a justice of the peace for 18 years.
Over coffee before the second annual Conference for Connecticut Justices of the Peace got underway Saturday at Central Connecticut State University, Tomaszewski launched into an impromptu comedy routine of her experiences. “Scariest wedding I’ve ever done in my life,” she begins.
The couple wanted to be married at a Portland quarry. No problem, she thinks. She arrives to gusting winds and is escorted down a ramp that leads to a floating raft protruding into the quarry. One of the guests asks how deep the water is. Sixty feet, someone answers.
Tomaszewski — who thought the wedding would be by the water, not on the water — insists on being supported by two sturdy men and directed them not to leave her side.
“I’m really scared. I don’t swim,” she says. “Now, everyone comes and stands behind me and the raft is like this.” She crooks her arm at the elbow to illustrate a steep incline. “I’m terrified.”
She was invited to stay for the reception but declined. “I was trembling too bad.”
Another couple wanted to be married on horseback. “I don’t do horses,” she told them. So they chose a pond instead, but forgot to spray for bugs. “The mosquitoes were horrible!” she exclaimed.
“I’ve been doing this 18 years. I keep saying, ‘This is it. I’m quitting. People are getting crazy.”‘ But she hangs in.
“I should write a book,” she muses, shaking her head. It would be a best-seller.
Being a justice of the peace is no simple matter, which proved to be the genesis of the annual conferences. The first one in 2005 was spawned by new legislation permitting civil unions of same-gender partners effective Oct. 1 of that year, and JPs were hungry for information.
Although civil unions have become outdated here — averaging 62 a month this year, in contrast to 313 a month the first three months the law was in effect in 2005 — the JPs are still hungry for information.
They were sated by sessions with town clerks, StateRegistrar of Vital Records Elizabeth Frugale and Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. They received counseling on how to network and market their business from Harland Henry, manager of the Small and Minority Business Unit at the Office of the Secretary of the State. And they were schooled in marriage fraud — a growing federal security concern — by Hans Maurer, fraud prevention manager for the Connecticut Passport Agency of the U.S. Department of State.
Bysiewicz told them she realized just how many of them there were when people stopped her last week to say they’d see her at Saturday’s conference, sponsored by the Westport-based Justices of the Peace of the U.S.
“In 2005, there were about 6,000 justices of the peace in Connecticut,” she said.
They are appointed or elected on a town-by-town basis, in accordance with a formula that tallies how many there shall be per municipality. Two-thirds of a municipality’s JPs are nominated by the two major parties respectively; one-third are unaffiliated or minority party voters.
Though weddings are their primary function, no municipality can send out tax bills unless a justice of the peace first signs a tax warrant. They also can affirm or validate certain business transactions, such as mortgage closings, unless those transactions require the raised seal of a notary public.
Based on a recent survey by jpUS, fees for weddings range from $50 to $400 or more. Some JPs provide additional services at cost, which range from flowers to planning the entire ceremony.
It’s serious business, requiring JPs to sign and file marriage and civil union licenses to validate the wedding. But it does have its lighter moments.
Saul Haffner, president of jpUS, told the gathering his most unusual wedding featured the groom riding up on a motorcycle, followed by the bride on her motorcycle. “After I pronounced them man and wife, they rode off on her motorcycle,” he said.
Other anecdotes, many featured in the jpUS newsletters, involve a tutu-wearing Vietnamese pot-bellied pig serving as flower girl and Howard the Great Dane as ring bearer. Howard had some issues and had to be tackled by family members soon after fleeing the service.
Walt Tucker of Hamden fell into the role of JP in a serendipitous sort of way. He had been doing some casual genealogical research on his family, and learned his great grandfather had been a justice of the peace. Coincidentally, he noticed a newspaper ad that Hamden was seeking independent and minority party candidates for justice of the peace.
Tucker said he’s done one wedding for the son of an acquaintance, charged $50 and gave the fee back as a wedding gift. He’s doing one free for a colleague at work soon, but in the future plans to structure his fees along the lines of his pay scale of $30 an hour at his “real job.”
“It really depends on how much time I have to invest,” Tucker said.
Wanda Chiles of Waterbury attended her son’s wedding in Laguna Beach, Calif., in August 2004 and was appalled that the justice of the peace didn’t attend the cliffside rehearsal and enlisted a young lady wearing a Harley-Davidson tank top and “very short shorts” to strew rose petals along the pathway and operate a boom box. Chiles stepped in and organized the wedding party and procession herself.
“I decided, ‘I can do this,”‘ Chiles said. She is now preparing for her first wedding.
“I thought, what more wonderful next career to have than to marry people,” she said.