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Topics In the News
 
New Jersey Judge Orders State to Allow Same-Sex Marriage
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 09/27/13
Last updated on: 09/27/13
 
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Judge Jacobson.

On September 27, 2013, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling 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. She ordered that her ruling take effect on October 21, 2013. However, the decision will be appealed by the administration of Governor Chris Christie.

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 grants 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. Same-sex couples can be equal to heterosexual couples only when both are able to marry. The invalidation of DOMA means that New Jersey's civil unions are an impediment to equality rather than a road to it.

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.'"

Judge Jacobson stipulated that her decision become effective on October 21 so that the state could prepare issuing marriage licenses or decide to appeal the decision. Soon after the ruling was announced, Governor Christie announced that he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. It is likely--but not certain--that Judge Jacobson's decision will be stayed pending a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In 2012, New Jersey's legislature finally passed a marriage equality bill, but it was vetoed by Governor Christie, who is considered a leading candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Marriage equality supporters in the legislature have until January to override the Governor's veto and thus achieve same-sex marriage by legislative means if Judge Jacobson's ruling is delayed by appeals.

Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal described the news of the court ruling thrilling: "We argued that limiting lesbians and gay men to civil union is unfair and unconstitutional, and now the Court has agreed.

The editorial board of New Jersey's Star-Ledger welcomed the decision. "The ruling will be appealed. But the logic of this decision is inescapable, so it is almost certain to survive," the editorial opined, and added, "It is remarkable that this official bigotry has lasted so long in New Jersey. We were one of the first states to extend limited legal rights to gay couples, but now we are trailing behind 13 states that allow gay marriage."

Below, thanks to Towleroad.com, is Judge Jacobson's decision.

Decision Summary Judgment

 
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