D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, who oversees the court’s Marriage Bureau, offered advice for same-sex couples coming to the courthouse for the first time to apply for a marriage license or a court officiated civil wedding.
In an interview with DC Agenda on the day before the city’s same-sex marriage law took effect March 3, Satterfield acknowledged the occasion would be “exciting” for gay couples and promised to do all he could to make the license application process run smoothly.
He said that while he could not comment on internal court personnel matters, he made it clear that clerks and other court officials could not decline to perform same-sex wedding on religious or moral grounds, as is the case in other jurisdictions where gay marriage is legal.
“We expect to have anyone doing and officiating weddings to be officiating all weddings,” he said.
Following is a transcript of Satterfield’s interview with DC Agenda:
DC AGENDA: Leah Gurowitz, the court’s public information officer, said you might be able to talk about the procedures at the courthouse for accommodating the city’s new same-sex marriage law.
LEE SATTERFIELD: I thought it would be good to give some information to the public. I know it’s going to be an exciting day tomorrow for a lot of folk who have been waiting and a lot of residents here in D.C. and even elsewhere who may come to D.C. to apply for a marriage license. So I wanted to offer some tips or advice as to how to make this a good experience and a smooth one.
AGENDA: Thank you. What would you suggest people do as the process begins?
SATTERFIELD: We’re open every day during the weekday 8:30 to 5 p.m. We’re available on other days other than [Wednesday]. But for folk who want to come [Wednesday] during what we expect to be a huge rush and a significant increase in numbers, we’re asking people to, number one, come with a lot of patience because we normally get about 10 to 12 applications in a day. And while I’m going to add some staff to the Marriage Bureau so that we can process a significant amount more, and we’re going to work very hard to do so, I expect that there will be some time delays. But we will accommodate everybody. So we’re asking, number one, that people be patient, who decide to come [Wednesday] and the next couple of days soon after the law becomes effective.
And then there are a number of other things they can do. For instance, come with a completed application. We loaded the application on our web site — dccourts.gov, you can go into the Superior Court section — or actually, there’s a link on the front page for folk to go right to the Marriage Bureau section and get the application so they complete it. I think it’s important that folk — some of the things we see happen to folk that end up having to come back is that they don’t come down with their identification because the law requires that you have to be 18 years and older.
And so if there’s one party coming down they may come down with their own but not with their partner’s — so they have to make sure they have some identification, whether it’s a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, not just for themselves but the person they’re marrying. So those are the kinds of things that trip people up and they end up having to come back again.
We want to try to avoid, particularly when we expect a significant increase. And then, of course, bring money — cash or money order with the amount. The fee is $35 for applying and then, of course, $10 for the marriage certificate, and that could be paid that day. We have a separate finance office for that, or any day up until you get your license. You have to have proof of payment before that — unless you are registered under the D.C. domestic partnership act. Then we’ll waive the fee. But please bring your certificate showing proof that you’re registered to show the clerks so that they can waive the fee.
AGENDA: What’s the procedure for a civil wedding at the courthouse? Isn’t there an additional waiting time for courthouse weddings?
SATTERFIELD: I’m being told now from one of my staff persons that knows all this that when they apply for the application they apply for a civil wedding at that time. So it will probably be 10 days from that time.
AGENDA: Ten days from when they apply for the license?
SATTERFIELD: Ten days or more. We use that as a reasonable period. Obviously, if they want to do it after 14 days or a specific date after the tenth day, we try to set it for that.
AGENDA: If someone does apply for a civil marriage, who exactly performs them? The web site says something about officials from the staff.
SATTERFIELD: Right. In terms of the civil marriages that are conducted at the courthouse, I designated as chief judge through the clerk of the court here a number of staff. Usually they’re supervisors or managers. And I’ve added some more — authorized some more individuals to do the civil marriage. The judges typically are not doing them during the day because they are involved in their dockets, the cases they have to hear each day, which are quite extensive. So very rarely are the judges involved. Sometimes the judges will go up to help out if we have an increased demand and so forth. And so if it’s done at the court it’s usually done by one of the duly sworn officiates that we designate to perform these weddings. And then individuals, judges do them outside of court for individuals who request — usually somebody that knows the judge. It’s that kind of connection. But we very rarely have judges go up there because at the time of the day they would go during the lunch hour and it’s hard to get them up there because of their other responsibilities.
AGENDA: But if a judge knows the couple…
SATTERFIELD: Oh, sure. If the couple arranges with a judge to perform their ceremony, they should bring the judge’s name and add it to the application so that it can be placed on the certificate. Or if it happens later, that’s fine, too. You don’t have to have it on the day that you apply. But judges often perform ceremonies — you just kind of get to them in a different way.
AGENDA: Could they do the ceremonies outside the courthouse, too?
SATTERFIELD: Oh, the judges? That’s where they mostly do them. That’s where the judges typically do them because they don’t do them here. Typically they will do them outside on the weekends or in the evenings, those kinds of things.
AGENDA: To the extent that you can comment, in other states officials are allowed to decline to perform a same-sex marriage if it is against their religious beliefs. Can the officials do that here?
SATTERFIELD: You know the law, as I understand it in the District of Columbia, does not allow that when it comes to employees of the court — it does for clergy and others. It allows them to decline. It doesn’t allow for our folk to do so. While I don’t discuss personnel matters, what I will say is this: We expect to have anyone doing and officiating weddings to be officiating all weddings.
AGENDA: Where is the Marriage Bureau in the courthouse?
SATTERFIELD: It’s on the fourth floor. Another point I want to make: We have three entrances to the courthouse. I only say this for a number of reasons. We expect a lot of activity for [Wednesday] — out front, including our main entrance. And we have construction going on out there. So if citizens come up and they see it’s quite crowded out there, we have another entrance in what we call the John Martial Plaza, which is the family court entrance, which is that plaza between the Municipal Building and our courthouse. And then we have an entrance on our C Street side of the court building. In terms of how busy they are, the main one on Indiana Avenue is the busiest. The family court one is the second busiest, and then C Street is the least busy. So we have three avenues of getting in and getting out. So I don’t know what all the activity is going to be like outside. But we have those three avenues of getting in and getting out. And the Marriage Bureau is on the fourth floor.
AGENDA: Leah Gurowitz said there’s an exception to the ban on cameras in the courthouse for weddings there?
SATTERFIELD: Right. Once we schedule your civil marriage, we give a permission slip so that the guards will allow you to bring a camera in. I’m glad you mentioned that because we don’t allow cameras for anyone coming in the courthouse. So if folk were coming in to apply, that would apply to them, but if you’re coming back to have a ceremony or guests of those who are having the ceremony, we will allow cameras in then. And that’s another reason for when we schedule it we make sure that the person gets permission in order to bring the camera past the guards.
AGENDA: In terms of the applications themselves, I noticed they had not changed as of a few weeks ago. They only had space for one bride and one groom.
SATTERFIELD: We modified them. We put the modified or our new standard form up over the weekend. So it’s there now.
AGENDA: Do the new forms use the term “spouse?”
SATTERFIELD: You can go up there and get it. We have taken out the bride and groom part and just put two spouse sections, and we’re going to use that from here on out for all applicants. We’re trying to keep it simple with one form.
AGENDA: Do you think some might object to that? Would more traditional heterosexual couples still want the terms bride and groom?
SATTERFIELD: But it’s just an application. So we’re willing to deal with that on the application part. That’s something that nobody sees but us. The certificate is what everybody wants out of this, because that’s the legal document joining you.
AGENDA: Would that legal document still say bride and groom if the parties want it?
SATTERFIELD: … We never had that on the form. What we do is we list the names of the parties. So we never had that on the certificate of license anyway.
AGENDA: Could you explain what the certificate of license is?
SATTERFIELD: It’s going to have our seal on it. It’s the certificate of marriage, the license number, and it’s going to duly authorize and celebrate the marriage between the named [parties] — both spouses. It will list their names. And then it’s signed by and stamped by the Clerk of the Court. And then whoever officiates it would have to sign it after the marriage is performed and then agree to send a copy back to us for our records. We keep a copy of it at the court. And they get a very nice copy of the certificate and the officiate is able to keep a copy as well.
AGENDA: Is that the one that goes to a church if the wedding will be held there?
SATTERFIELD: That’s right. This certificate goes to whether it is a civil marriage here in our court or signed by a judge or signed by a clergy. It’s one certificate for all.