A New Jersey state judge ruled today that the state must permit same-sex marriages, with ceremonies set to begin on October 21. Governor Chris Christie’s administration is widely expected to appeal the decision.
The ruling adds a new twist to the gay rights fight in New Jersey, a battle that has already brought gay rights activists tantalizingly close to victory twice. In 2003, the New Jersey legislature passed a weak domestic partnership bill, providing only some of the benefits of marriage to gay couples. But the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the legislature must provide civil unions, with all the benefits of marriage, to gay couples. Anything less, the court reasoned, would be a violation of equal protection, as guaranteed by the state constitution. The vote was 4-3; the three dissenting justices believed that the state was required to legalize same-sex marriage immediately.
Then, in 2012, an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature returned to the issue, voting to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the state. But Governor Christie vetoed the bill, claiming that the marriage issue should be left to a popular referendum.
Ever since, marriage advocates in the legislature have been plotting to override his veto—an effort largely mooted by today’s ruling. Although Christie’s administration will almost surely appeal, it has virtually no legal ground to stand on. The New Jersey state constitution, like the federal constitution, contains an equal protection clause that guarantees the same rights to all citizens. And in 2006, the state Supreme Court held that civil unions effectively granted marriage rights to gay couples, minus the magic word of marriage. They were, after all, getting the same state benefits as straight married couples—and DOMA prevented them from getting any federal benefits whatsoever.
But last June, the United States Supreme Court changed all that. By overturning DOMA, the court provided federal benefits to all gay couples—if they were legally wed. Gay couples in civil unions, however, remain unrecognized by the federal government. And so, as Judge Mary Jacobson reasoned today, gay couples in New Jersey must now be allowed to enter into true marriages.
The New Jersey ruling is one of several to cite the Supreme Court’s momentous DOMA decision in questioning or overturning gay marriage bans. But this case is unique: Judge Jacobson relies exclusively on the state’s constitution, allowing the issue to avoid federal courts and, more importantly, the Supreme Court. At most, the case will rise to the state’s own Supreme Court. And, given that institution’s liberal bent, it’s quite likely that this new chapter of gay rights in New Jersey will also be the last.
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