New Jersey becomes Number 14!

NJ Chief Justice Stuart Rabner

In a surprise development, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Friday denied the state’s request to delay a lower court order that allows same-sex couples to begin obtaining marriage licenses there starting Monday, October 21.  The news makes New Jersey the 14th state, plus the District of Columbia to provide for marriage equality.

It was a unanimous decision from the seven-member court, which just days earlier agreed to review the merits of that lower court decision in an oral argument scheduled for January.

Typically, when a higher court agrees to review the merits of a lower court decision, it postpones implementation of the lower court decision.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner (an appointee of former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine) wrote the 20-page opinion on the issue of the stay. At the top of that decision, he noted that the state supreme court was also unanimous in 2006 when it ruled that the New Jersey constitution “guarantees same-sex couples in committed relationships the same rights and benefits as married couples of the opposite sex.” He said that, while an existing lawsuit challenges the legislature’s decision to give same-sex couples civil union licenses instead, the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act “changed the contour” of that pending lawsuit.

Windsor “changed the landscape,” said the court.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled September 27 that the decision in the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, requires New Jersey to allow same-sex couples to marry in order to have access to the same federal benefits as straight married couples. She said the state should begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples on October 21 and denied the state’s request to stay that ruling until the state supreme court could rule.

In its opinion, the state supreme court agreed with Jacobson’s reasons for denying the stay, saying that the harm being done to same-sex couples in New Jersey by not being able to marry is “real” and that the state “has not shown a reasonable probability” of succeeding on its challenge on the merits of Jacobson’s decision.

“This is a huge victory for New Jersey’s same-sex couples and their families,” said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, which led the challenge to New Jersey’s law. “Beginning October 21st, New Jersey’s same-sex couples will be able to marry and have the critically important rights, benefits, and protections they need for their families. Take out the champagne glasses – wedding bells will soon be ringing in New Jersey!”

Even before the state supreme court made its announcement, Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced he would preside over marriages of same-sex couples in Newark on Monday.

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