WHITPAIN — During their lunch breaks from work on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kainan Yin, a software engineer, and his girlfriend of nearly five years, Lu Tian, a financial analyst, had something more important to do than grab something to eat — they were going to get married.
The pair walked gingerly into the district courtroom in Blue Bell, which was empty save for Magisterial District Judge Robert Sobeck, wearing his black robe and a big smile as he greeted the nervous couple and then gave them some brief pre-ceremony instructions as they stood in the center of the room.
“Put her ring right here, then you don’t have to fumble around in your pockets,” Sobeck told Yin, pointing to the top of the partition that separates the defendant’s table from the spectator gallery.
“At the end, would you prefer not to kiss, or kiss?” Sobeck asked.
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Yin replied.
“I always ask because so many different cultures come in here,” said Sobeck. “I do 100 of these a year and everybody’s different.”
The judge walked over and shut the courtroom door. “So, once we’re finished, we’ll go over the paperwork. But there’s only one thing I’m going to ask of you,” Sobeck said, fixing a solemn look on the couple.
A bit startled by his serious tone, they turned from each other and looked at him, expectantly.
“Get a little closer,” Sobeck said, breaking into a grin as the pair exhaled, releasing some of their jitters. “You can even hold hands if you want… you’re almost married, right?”
A few minutes later, after the exchange of vows and rings, Sobeck uttered the magic words: “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
The pair kissed, Sobeck congratulated them, and then they spent a few minutes going over the official paperwork, as promised.
“So you are now married,” Sobeck said, finally. “Where are you off to now?”
“Back to work,” said Yin.
“I understand,” Sobeck laughed. “I get that all the time.”
Back in his office, a few minutes before the couple arrived, Sobeck explained that performing marriage ceremonies has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job since he was sworn in just over two years ago.
“They’re a lot of fun,” he said. “Compared to what I usually do in the courtroom?”
Indeed, with accused murderers, rapists, burglars and nearly every other stripe of alleged criminal coming in and out of his courtroom day after day, as well as a parade of traffic-related cases and landlord-tenant disputes to oversee, Sobeck said he always looks forward to the weddings, which he tries to schedule at the end of the day “so I can leave on a positive note.”
“When you have all this negativity and then you have that little island of pleasure come in, I like that a lot,” he continued.
While every district judge in Montgomery County can marry couples, not that many actually will. “For what reason, I don’t know,” said Sobeck, “but I told them down at county to put me at the top of the list, to have people call me first.”
And they do. In 2012, his first year, he married 99 couples, and in 2013, 104 couples.
Sobeck aims to exceed the latter number in 2014, and on Feb. 14 he’s hoping to welcome as many couples as possible to be married on Valentine’s Day — the second year in a row his courtroom will exclusively host weddings every half hour, beginning at 1 p.m. The court will remain open a least a couple of hours past the usual 4:15 p.m. closing time to accommodate couples who want to get hitched.
The process to be married by a district judge in Montgomery County is pretty simple: First, the couple must appear together at the Marriage License Bureau of the Register of Wills Office in Norristown to fill out a license application and pony up the requisite $50 cash. Couples can take the license with them that day, but state law dictates that license will not become valid for three consecutive days.
“They give you a cooling off period, make you sleep on it,” Sobeck laughed.
Once the license becomes valid, it’s good for 60 days. Should the couple decide to go through with it, and have Sobeck officiate, they can call his court (215-646-8201) and schedule a time to come in and tie the knot — with an additional $42 cash in hand to pay for the service.
The ceremony, which is non-religious, doesn’t take long — 5 to 10 minutes, plus the before-and-after formalities.
“‘You take him, you take her …,’ I try to stretch it out a little bit, but it’s pretty simple, short, and to the point,” Sobeck said.
Yet there’s plenty of room for emotion, for fun, and for variety.
Sobeck said he’s married couples young and old, of myriad ethnicities and nationalities. Some couples get formally married in court and then have the big, lavish ceremony later — on their way out of the courtroom, Yin and Tian said they plan to have a proper ceremony with family and friends in their native China sometime this year.
Other times, members of the military who are about to be deployed overseas come in to tie the knot before their departure. As an Army veteran who comes from a long line of military men and has a son who’s served in the Middle East, Sobeck said that he’s “very proud and honored to do this for them.”
Sobeck said that over the past two years he’s been approached about performing same-sex marriages, “but I’m not permitted to do that, it’s state law,” he said. “I could care less if you’re purple, I’ll marry you, but it’s illegal for me to do (same-sex marriages). If it ever gets changed, they can come back and see me.”
The judge said he’s seen it all when it comes to wedding attire in his courtroom — from fancy white dresses to shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
He’s seen his courtroom packed to the rafters with well-wishers, and, like on this day, empty save for himself and the couple.
He’s had a bagpiper escort a couple into the courtroom — “that was pretty loud,” Sobeck deadpans — and he’s watched a groom slip a candy ring onto his bride’s finger last April Fool’s Day.
“One of the first weddings I did was an older couple, very athletic looking and very giddy, like they had just met, but they had been together for decades,” Sobeck recalled. “I married them, then we went out in the lobby and I gave them their receipt and some paperwork and I wished them well and she goes, ‘Oh I forgot, you’re the best man!’ — she was wearing a long skirt and she lifted her leg all the way up and you could pretty much see … well, I went ‘Whoaaaa!’ And she pulled her garter off and said, ‘Here you go! Bye!’ and ran out. That was something.”
Sobeck said his favorite times are when couples are nervous and clam up or trip up a bit during the ceremony, proving that the moment is really affecting them.
“I don’t want them to be embarrassed, but stage fright is part of what makes it fun, and I’ll joke around a little to get them to relax,” he said. “I like it better when it’s not scripted.”
“I’ve done over 200 of these in two years and it has never been a bad experience,” Sobeck added. “It’s one of the motivations to do as many as I can, because it’s always a happy day. It’s good to be a part of a positive experience in people’s lives.”
Follow staff writer Michael Goldberg on Twitter @mg_thereporter.