The ruling from New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson at the end of last month ordered that starting October 21st that state must begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Unfortunately, though not unpredictably, Governor Chris Christie asked his attorney general a few days later to appeal the ruling and request a stay. This "two steps forward, one step back" model of progress is common in the path toward marriage equality in the United States. Looking at the steps taken to reach this moment may help us to see what's next for the Garden State, and other states hoping to achieve equality in the coming years.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of the case argued by Lambda Legal in Lewis v. Harris, stating that same-sex couples deserved the same rights as married heterosexual couples. The decision was unanimous, yet the Court ruled 4-3 that labeling these unions as marriage was optional.
Given the opportunity to choose civil unions over marriage, the New Jersey legislature passed the Civil Union Act. Governor Corzine signed the bill in December and the law went into effect on February 19, 2007.
The plaintiffs in Lewis v. Harris asked the court to consider whether the state's civil union law complied with their ruling that all couples be treated equally under the law, regardless of sex. They believed that the law failed to achieve the equality promised. However, in a 3-3 vote, the Court announced that they would not consider the constitutionality of civil unions until there was a trial record from a lower court.
With a 60% vote in the Senate and a 56% vote in the Assembly, the New Jersey legislature passed a marriage equality bill. Governor Chris Christie, who promised "very swift action," vetoed the bill the day after it passed. The legislature has until January 14 to gather enough votes to override the Governor's veto. Currently, they need only 3 more votes from the Senate and nearly a dozen from the Assembly.
Although she had dismissed it a year before, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg decided to "[allow] the suit against the state to include a previously dismissed argument that New Jersey's marriage laws deny equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."
In her ruling, she argued that tradition, "the main thing the state has pointed to for not altering the present laws," was not a valid basis for discrimination. This decision offered new hope to marriage equality advocates discouraged by the Governor's recent veto.
In the 5-4 decision of United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Section 3 is the part of the law that denied legally married same-sex couples from receiving the over 1,000 federal rights and benefits of marriage not covered at the state level.
Inspired by the ruling in United States v. Windsor, Garden State Equality asked Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson to issue a summary judgement on the state's civil union law.
In her 53 page ruling, the judge explained that "[t]he ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts." She went on to state that "[s]ame-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution."
A few days later, Governor Christie announced that he had instructed the state's acting attorney general, John Hoffman, to appeal the ruling. He is also trying to put a stay, or hold, on the implementation of the law, set to go into effect on October 21st.
If they are granted an appeal, it may take several months for the case to be heard before New Jersey's Supreme Court. At this point, it does seems more likely that marriage equality will finally be won in New Jersey through the courts instead of by the legislature. However, it's possible this ruling may push on-the-fence legislators onto the right side of history.
The governor is still advocating for a public referendum on the issue, likely because until very recently ballot measures for LGBT rights lost 100% of the time. Even if marriage rights do end up being put to a public vote, there's a great chance that it would pass. In a poll from this March, Quinnipiac found that New Jersians support the right to marry by a margin of 64-30. Even voters over age 55 support this right, 56-38.