Jersey Juncture

With high court declining to hear marriage challenge, Garden State gays will have to wait

Jersey Unsure

With New Jersey high court’s decision not to hear a marriage challenge before a trial court can develop a record, same-sex couples are left to wait

With one seat vacant on the New Jersey Supreme Court, a 3-3 split decision on whether the high court would hear the challenge to the inadequacy of civil unions, which are available for same-sex couples in New Jersey, means that the effort launched by Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal will not move forward in the court at this time.

The effort was intended to avoid a filing in trial court, but the three justices held on Monday, July 26, that “[t]his matter cannot be decided without the development of an appropriate trial-like record.” The court left open the possibility of hearing the challenge if a new case were to be filed and decided by lower courts first.

Steven Goldstein, the chair of Garden State Equality, said in a statement on Monday, ”Because of the Legislature’s inability to act and the Supreme Court’s decision today, New Jersey continues in a caste system where an entire people are thrown aside into a profoundly inferior status, spit on, dumped on, utterly degraded, by hospitals and employers who mock the term ‘civil union.”’

Lambda Legal’s deputy legal director, Hayley Gorenberg, likewise said in a statement, ”Our plaintiffs and the New Jersey Legislature’s own Civil Union Review Commission documented the rampant discrimination same-sex couples face as a consequence of civil union status, and this ruling now relegates our plaintiffs to second-class citizenship for even longer.”

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Tobias Wolff, however, counseled moderation in responding to the high court’s decision, noting in comments provided to Metro Weekly, ”The suit makes a series of arguments about the on-the-ground impact of denying marriage equality to same-sex couples in New Jersey, and a court will have to decide whether those arguments are supported by evidence.

”That kind of adjudication of facts is not what appellate courts ordinarily do, so it is not surprising that the New Jersey Supreme Court would be reluctant to hear the case in the first instance,” he said. ”It is important, therefore, not to overstate the implications of this ruling for the ultimate prospects of the challenge to the civil unions law.”

In a 4-3 decision reached in October 2006, a majority of the court was faced with a marriage challenge but did not decide whether marriage was required. It instead ordered the Legislature to provide equal “rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners.” As the Legislature chose the civil-union route rather than marriage equality at that time, this case argued that civil unions weren’t enough to meet the obligations placed on the Legislature in the original ruling.

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