Someday when he's older, little Mercury Morgan-Buechner's dad will tell him how he was not only there on the Valentine's Day when his parents got married, he had the most comfortable seat in the house.

"You were strapped to Daddy, and Mom was right there," James Buechner said as he grinned at the sound-asleep one-month-old pressed against his chest. Buechner, 20, forewent the standard tuxedo and boutonniere for a T-shirt, jeans and his son in a carrier as Hennepin County District Judge Gina Brandt pronounced him and Mercedes Morgan-Buechner, 20, husband and wife.

The small family was alone, but it wasn't a private affair. Surrounding them were the 16 other newlywed couples who took advantage of the free weddings offered at noon Thursday in the bustling atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center. Joining them were their families, friends and the occasional office worker en route to lunch or to pay a traffic ticket who stopped to wish the happy couples well.

Eleven other couples got married Thursday at the Mall of America's ice castle. They won that chilly privilege for writing winning essays about why they wanted to be married there on Valentine's Day.

At the Government Center, Judge William Koch beamed as he took in the scene.

"It's awesome," he said. "Candidly, marrying people is one of the best parts of our job."

Although judges perform weddings free during work hours, fees generally range from $100 to $200 for after hours or weekend weddings.

Koch, along with other courts staff, first came up with the idea of offering the free weddings, with priority given to military veterans and first responders. When 22 Hennepin County judges stepped forward to volunteer their services, including musical accompaniment, they opened the event to everyone.

And everyone came. There was Jeffrey McKinney, who nearly couldn't bear the five-minute exchange of vows and rings before he finally was able to kiss his bride, Alona. The couple found out about the event and jumped at the opportunity, in part to bring the family of Alona, 31, to the United States from the Philippines.

"And we're in love," added McKinney, 58, "She's the best woman I've ever had, and I'm blessed."

"Plus, it's a nice day," Alona smiled. "It's Valentine's Day!"

The couple planned to celebrate with dinner later that night, but first, both had to go back to work -- he at the Minneapolis Convention Center, she at the Hilton Garden Inn.

It was on Valentine's Day in Mexico City that Ramon Jose Mexicano first asked Candelario Padilla Marquez to be his girlfriend. Thirty-three years later, as their two daughters looked on, they sat on a bench dressed in their best as they awaited their wedding. Both admit that when it came to marriage, they just never got around to it.

"Sometimes I'd say 'Wait, wait!' or sometimes she'd say, 'Wait, wait!'" said Ramon, 55.

The couple's daughter, Laura Mexicano, 16, called her parents' wedding "a dream come true."

"I've been bugging them since I was little," she said.

Candelario, 50, said she was excited, while Ramon said he was "very happy."

Both admitted that they weren't nervous. After more than three decades, there wasn't much to be scared of.

Robert Messinger Jr. and his wife, Jamie, looked on proudly as his son, Robert Messinger III, 24, prepared to say "I do" to Cherish Bush-Robertson, 31, as their three kids looked on.

"We love it," he said. "We stepped in front of the judge 20 years ago, and we've been happily married. We like the idea."

Although Robert and Cherish say they might have a traditional church wedding down the line, they haven't thought too seriously about it.

"We're more leaning towards the reception," she said.

The joy among the attendants is the reason this is likely to become an annual event -- one that's as rewarding for the judges performing the ceremonies as the newlyweds, said Koch, who formerly handled his share of divorces in Family Court.

"We often see the result of marriages that don't work," he said. "Doing weddings reminds you that there's a lot of good. And you want to celebrate that."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921