New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, convinced that the state’s challenge to same-sex marriages would fail in the state supreme court, on Monday had his legal staff withdraw an appeal on the issue.  The state’s formal withdrawal letter is here; a statement from the governor’s office is here.

As a result, a ruling in September by a state judge in Trenton becomes final, as of Monday, making New Jersey the fourteenth state — along with Washington, D.C. — to allow same-sex couples to wed.  In fact, marriages of some of the couples have already begun in the state.

Governor Christie’s office said that the opinion released last Friday by the state supreme court “left no ambiguity about the unanimous court’s view on the ultimate decision in this matter.”  While the governor “strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people,” he said that the court had now “spoken clearly” on New Jersey law and he would carry out the ruling through state agencies.

Although weddings of gays and lesbians are now fully legally in the state, that happened without a ruling that they have a constitutional right to marry.  Rather, the marriage right was extended to them by state courts on the theory that the state constitution guarantees them equal right to benefits that go with marriage, and that includes the formal legal status of marriage itself.

As a practical matter, that is not a major difference, since there will be no legal cloud over those who now do get married in New Jersey. But,  it does fall short of a right to marry that stands on its own.  That means that, unless other states already guarantee equality to committed same-sex couples, or unless the federal Constitution is someday interpreted (or amended) to establish a right for them to marry, marriage for gays and lesbians would not be extended to states where there is still political and legal resistance.

Sooner or later, a case that tests whether the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to recognize full marriage equality for same-sex couples is likely to reach the Justices; that may come sooner rather than later, since a number of cases raising that core issue are now making their way through lower federal and state courts, some on quite rapid schedules.

In New Jersey, a marriage equality advocacy group and six same-sex couples and their children won a plea for a right to marry in a ruling in late September by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson.   Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny federal marital benefits to couples who are already legally married under state law, and since New Jersey’s state constitutional guarantees equal access to marital benefits for gay and lesbian couples, Judge Jacobson said those couples would be denied equality if they could not now marry.

That is the ruling that the state supreme court refused to postponed last Friday, at the request of state officials.  That refusal has now led the state to give up on its legal challenge.

Posted in Cases in the Pipeline, Featured

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, A challenge to same-sex marriage ends, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 21, 2013, 12:50 PM),