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Topics In the News
 
New Jersey Judge Denies Stay of Marriage Equality Ruling; Supreme Court Agrees to Hear the Case
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/11/13
Last updated on: 10/11/13
 
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On October 10, 2013, Judge Mary C. Jacobson of State Superior Court in Mercer County, denied Governor Chris Christie's request to stay her order that same-sex marriages be allowed beginning on October 21, 2013. The state had asked that her order be stayed until after an appeal of the decision is completed. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court later announced that it will consider both the marriage equality case and the question of a stay of Judge Jacobson's ruling.

"There is no 'public interest' in depriving a class of New Jersey residents their constitutional rights while appellate review is pursued," Judge Jacobson wrote in denying the state's request for a stay. "On the contrary, granting a stay would simply allow the State to continue to violate the equal protection rights of New Jersey same-sex couples, which can hardly be considered a public interest."

As Kate Zernike reports in the New York Times, the state immediately filed a request that an appellate court grant a stay. It had already asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear the appeal on an expedited basis; the court has not said yet whether it will do so.

In denying the request for a stay, Judge Jacobson said that the state had not demonstrated that its appeal was likely to be successful. She also rejected the state's argument that New Jersey would suffer "irreparable harm" if marriages began, ruling instead that the people harmed would be the same-sex couples who would have to wait even longer to gain access to the federal benefits that the United States Supreme Court guaranteed them in a decision in June.

Judge Jacobson noted that "until some indeterminate time when appeals have been resolved," same-sex couples would remain ineligible for federal tax and retirement benefits and for spousal coverage under Medicare. And if one member of the couple was a noncitizen, the other would not be able to sponsor him or her for residency, forcing them to live apart.

Lawrence S. Lustberg, who argued the case before Judge Jacobson on behalf of Garden State Equality and six gay and lesbian couples and their children, praised the ruling.

"We're very pleased with not just the ruling, but the opinion, which makes clear how our clients are being harmed by not being able to marry, and compares that with the lack of harm that's experienced by the state if they can marry," he said. "The harms to our clients are real. The harm to the state is theoretical."

On October 11, 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that it would expedite its consideration of the marriage equality case and also consider whether same-sex marriage licenses can be issued while it decides.

As Geoff Mulvihill reports for the Associated Press, "The issue, battled in New Jersey's courts and Legislature for more than a decade, has taken on new urgency on both fronts with the opponents the same--Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, and the state's gay rights advocates."

Both sides had requested the Supreme Court to expedite the case.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is expected to rule before October 21 on the question of issuing licenses and has scheduled to hear the full case on January 6 or 7, 2014.

Judge Jacobson's September 27 ruling relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Windsor that declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. She said that New Jersey's ban on same-sex marriage violates the state's equal protection guarantees since it prevents same-sex couples from obtaining federal benefits.

Declaring that "The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts," Judge Jacobson ruled that "Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution."

The ruling granted a motion for summary judgment filed by Lambda Legal soon after the Windsor decision in a two-year-old marriage equality case in New Jersey that was brought on behalf of Garden State Equality and other plaintiffs.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a case called Lewis v. Harris that the unequal legal treatment of same-sex couples in the state violated the New Jersey Constitution's equal protection guarantee and required the state legislature to either extend marriage rights to same-sex couples or create a separate but equivalent legal institution. The New Jersey Legislature chose to adopt the Civil Union Act, which provided same-sex couples "all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy."

In 2011, Lambda Legal filed a suit, Garden State Equality v. Dow, alleging that New Jersey's civil unions have not been effective in providing "all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy." That lawsuit mainly languished as the focus shifted to the legislative struggle for marriage equality in the state. However, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June gave new life to Lambda Legal's argument.

The motion for summary judgment filed by Lambda Legal claimed that the Supreme Court's invalidation of DOMA has made starkly clear how unequal New Jersey's civil unions are in comparison to marriage.

As the Lambda Legal brief explained, "New Jersey's exclusion of same-sex couples from lawful marriage deprives [same-sex] couples . . . of numerous federal protections, benefits, and responsibilities. . . The resulting violation of Lewis' mandate that 'committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples,' . . . is patent."

In her carefully considered and clearly articulated decision, Judge Jacobson agreed. She patiently rejected the state's arguments that the time was not "ripe," that Garden State Equality and the individual plaintiffs lacked standing, and that the problem was the federal government's refusal to recognize civil unions rather than the state's refusal to permit same-sex marriage. The state's action in creating civil unions, Judge Jacobson concluded, was responsible for not treating same-sex couples equally.

She said "the current inequality visited upon same-sex civil union couples offends the New Jersey Constitution, creates an incomplete set of rights that Lewis sought to prevent, and is not compatible with 'a reasonable conception of basic human dignity.'"

 
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