“Some little-known judicial history from the man who made it.”
by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Oliver Goldsmith wrote, in The Vicar of Wakefield,(1) “I chose my wife, as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.” Last year I heard a comedienne(2) recommend, “Skimp on your wedding gown; why spend a lot of money on something you’re only going to wear five or six times.”
It appears attitudes about weddings have changed over time.
Certainly mine have. For one thing, I don’t perform as many as I used to.
I never did a lot of weddings. My friend Dave Carter did. They called him “The Marrying Judge.” He put all his children through college – and Dave has more offspring than a fruit fly – by performing weddings. He greatly enjoyed it and was really good at it. But I never did more than a half-dozen a year.
Dave doesn’t do weddings any more.(3) He’s a federal judge now. Apparently the feds don’t do weddings. My understanding is that too many brides object to having two guys in dark suits standing behind the celebrant, talking into their sleeves throughout the ceremony.(4)
The whole judges-can-do-weddings thing always mystified me. After 15 years as a prosecutor, it didn’t seem at all strange to me that my election to the bench empowered me to put people in prison or, for that matter, order them executed. But the fact I could suddenly marry them always struck me as flat-out bizarre.
I mean, what did I know about weddings? My whole experience with weddings was limited to having attended several – including a distressing number in which I was the groom.
So bestowing upon me the right to perform weddings because I was a judge seemed a complete non sequitur. It was as if, because I had successfully operated a florist shop for 15 years, the state had suddenly issued me a license to practice chiropractic.
I was completely lost. The first time I was asked to perform a wedding, I asked Judge Jack Ryan where to get a wedding ceremony.(5) Jack shook his head ruefully, then pointed his index finger at my temple. “Right there, Billy, right there.”
“You mean,” I whimpered, “I have to write it myself?”
“Yep. And if you were dumb enough to agree to do it, you may not be smart enough to make one up.” It’s good that Jack ended up on the bench; he wasn’t cut out for the diplomatic corps.
One of the other judges, hearing this exchange, took pity on me and offered to let me look at his. I felt like I’d gotten a reprieve from the governor.
Then I looked at his wedding ceremony. It was six pages, single-spaced, and would have taken longer to deliver than a letter to Muammar Qaddafi.
What’s more, it read like it might have been written by Qaddafi. It was chock full of stuff about “wifely duties” and the “role of the wife in maintaining the home,” and similar thoughts that pretty much convinced me I either had to get help from a younger judge or buy a Kevlar robe for wedding ceremonies. Unless the bride was going to be marching down the aisle to Tammy Wynette singing “Stand by Your Man,” this was not a wedding ceremony I could get away with in late 20th-century America.
Fortunately Jack gave me some tips, and I found a couple of wedding quotes I liked, and I was able to put together a very nice ceremony that received good reviews. It got me into some very nice parties I would not have been invited to otherwise.
I don’t know who’s picking up the slack for the 406 weddings a year that Dave and I aren’t performing anymore.(6) But whoever it is owes me a debt of gratitude.
Come to think of it, they owe me a debt of money. Because I was the price-gouger who, in 1990, practically doubled the going rate on judicially performed weddings.
I didn’t set out to be a price-gouger. I was perfectly happy performing weddings for $150 a pop. For that price, I did more than just show up in a robe and say the magic words. I sat down with the couple, found out how they wanted their wedding performed, got some cute details about them for the ceremony, put together something that suited them and fit within the outline I’d developed, and warned them to practice the kiss.
This last may seem like strange advice, but the very first wedding I performed, the groom went for the big, swooping, dipping, Clark Gable-at-his-most-urbane-and-sexy kiss, while the bride leaned over for a chaste little tap on the lips. The result was an awkward wrestling match that included a couple holds I just know were not legal, and left the bride looking more like Fay Wray trying to escape King Kong than Julia Roberts embracing Hugh Grant in Notting Hill.
I probably earned my fee for every wedding after that just with the kiss advice.
But then one day a friend who practices family law(7) asked me if I did weddings. “Occasionally,” I said.
“Would you do one for me?” he asked. “I have a client I just got divorced and now he wants to get married again. Once again, hope triumphs over experience.”
“Sure,” I said. See footnote 7, supra.
“Great, how much do you charge?”
“One-fifty, but I’ll do it for you as a favor.” Having twice read footnote 7, you now completely understand this response as well as the last one.
“No, no, don’t do that,” he insisted. “He’s one of those guys who confuses price with value. The more it costs, the more he thinks it’s worth. I told him it would cost $250. That’s what Vogl charges.”(8)
“No kidding? Vogl charges two-fifty?!”
“Yeah, so do it for $250 and smile.”
I did. I worked really hard on the wedding. The bride was Cuban, and they’d gotten special visas for her family to attend from Cuba. So I spent an afternoon in the library tracking down quotes about love from a Cuban poet. It was a big hit.
It was such a big hit that I got a phone call two weeks later from a woman who had been at the wedding. She wanted me to do hers. The bride had given her my number.
Now I was in a box. I couldn’t very well charge her less than I’d charged my friend’s client. For all I knew, he’d told her $250 was a special rate.
“Did she tell you how much I charged?” I asked.
“Yes, she said she got a special rate of $250(9), but if I mentioned her lawyer’s name maybe I could get the same rate. Ple-e-e-e-a-a-a-s-s-e.”
What could I say? I said, “Sure.”
I have no idea how the word got around that I was charging $250 for weddings, but it did. Pretty soon, everybody was charging $250.
You wanna hear the kicker? Vogl did NOT charge $250. My family law friend was wrong. Vogl charged $150, and was one of the last guys to raise his price.
That was 1990. I have no clue what the going rate is now. I have pretty much priced myself out of the market because I like to play golf and watch baseball on my weekends.
But whatever they’re making, I’m the guy who got them there.
No wonder they love me.
(1) A book you should not read unless you absolutely must have the credits to graduate.
(2) I debated whether to use this word (with myself; I have a lot of these fascinating little internal monologues), but figured it enabled me to communicate the gender of the comedian in one word rather than two. So it was an economical decision rather than a sexist one.
(3) I think the last one he did may have been mine, eleven years ago.
(4) And, of course, the helicopter circling overhead made it hard to hear The Wedding March.
(5) In 15 years on the bench, one thing I learned was that asking Jack Ryan for help was never a bad idea.
(6) Hank and Tommie Aaron hold the Major League Baseball record for most home runs by brothers. The record is 768. Hank hit 755; Tommie hit 13. I figure Dave and I were the Hank and Tommie Aaron of Orange County weddings.
(7) And here’s another piece of advice: Have a friend who practices family law. You may go your entire life without needing a carpenter or a urologist or a good insurance agent. But God help you if you don’t have a friend who practices family law.
(8) This was Commissioner Richard Vogl, our local family law guru. If you’re Rich Vogl, you don’t need footnote 7.
(9) Yep. Just as I thought.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. His nationally-syndicated humor column, A Criminal Waste of Space, has once again been recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. In the association’s annual Better Newspapers Competition, ACWOS was chosen best column in a small daily publication (the San Francisco Recorder). It is the third time the CNPA has honored ACWOS in the past five years. The award was presented at the CNPA’s annual convention in Universal City on October 25. He can be contacted via email at William.firstname.lastname@example.org.