Tracy Bruyere Sr. and Deirdre Tapley couldn’t stop smiling as they exchanged wedding vows in a small courtroom inside the Columbia County Justice Center in Evans.
Unlike many courthouse weddings, the pair organized their union. The couple brought family members who took photos after the quick ceremony, during which they never let go of each other’s hands.
“We planned it,” said the newly-married Mrs. Bruyere. “This just worked for us. We’ve both been married before.”
The Bruyeres were one of eight couples who tied the knot Nov. 8 during Columbia County Magistrate Court’s weekly Free Wedding Thursday special.
The Bruyeres didn’t know about the special, but showed up at the courthouse ready to wed between 2 and 4 p.m., when a magistrate will officiate free wedding ceremonies.
On an average Thursday, magistrates marry five to 10 couples. But Magistrate Judge Connie Washington said novelty days such as Oct. 11, 2012 (10-11-12) see an increase in matrimonial traffic.
Magistrates married a record 15 couples on Oct. 11. Washington already has after-hours appointments to marry several 12-12-12 couples today.
“On Oct. 11, 2012, we had (waiting couples’ marriage licenses) lined down the counter,” said Washington, who, along with Magistrate Judge Dale Jenereaux, alternate in performing ceremonies. “He would take one and I would take one. It was like a revolving door.”
The magistrates perform the ceremonies only in the two-hour window. But like magistrates around the state, couples can hire them to officiate weddings after hours or on weekends.
“I already have some scheduled for (today),” Washington said, adding that she often marries couples after hours in the gazebo at the nearby amphitheater.
Magistrates performed 25 weddings in November and 41 in October, likely due in part to the Oct. 11 spike, Washington said.
Couples must apply for a marriage license in Columbia County Probate Court before getting hitched. Once an officiant, magistrate or ordained religious leader performs the ceremony, the couple must file the license in Probate Court.
Probate Court staff issued more than 20 marriage licenses on Oct. 11 and has records of 16 weddings on that date.
The magistrates perform ceremonies only during the two-hour window to keep from officiating ceremonies for couples wandering in at various times through the week.
Judges in neighboring counties typically don’t perform weddings during business hours, so residents from all over the area come to Columbia County to tie the knot.
“We have people from everywhere to come in here,” Magistrate Connie Washington said. “We have a lot of military.”
Some couples are young and expecting or new parents, Washington said, while others just want to avoid big weddings. Some seem to get married on a whim.
“There’s a lot of spur-of-the-moment,” Washington said. “We have people come on their lunch hour. The divorce papers get signed in the morning and they are here getting married in the afternoon.”
Washington and Jenereaux said they’ve married couples on Thursdays wearing shorts and T-shirts and others in formal dress with entire wedding parties.
“I’ve had them get married – they come in with a really nice suit and a dress that had the price tags on it, so they could return it to the store,” Jenereaux said. “They want to do it up right, they want to look nice for the ceremony, but they couldn’t afford it.”
The magistrates perform the ceremonies in a small courtroom attached to Magistrate Court. Most are fine with it, but a few, Washington said, expect a little more on their special day.
“You’d be amazed at the people who really get upset when they get in there,” Washington said, “because they expect that they get to walk down the aisle like a church. We don’t have an aisle. We have an aisle, but it’s a courtroom. We don’t have music playing. You’ve got to walk on in here and stand here.”
Though the ceremony is simple, Washington usually makes the couples look at each other as they recite their vows. “You’re going to be doing that forever,” she tells them. “You might as well start now.”
The ceremony takes about five minutes and both judges have it memorized.
But every ceremony is a surprise, be it the clothing, circumstances or the couples themselves, Jenereaux said. “You never know what is going to happen.”