This afternoon, a trial court in New Jersey ruled that the state is required under the state constitution to extend full marriage to same-sex couples. This is an appropriate and predictable outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down Section 3 of the misnamed Defense of Marriage Act.
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state had to treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples equally under the law. But it left it to the legislature to determine if civil unions would fit the bill, and that’s the route the legislature took. As long as same-sex couples were restricted by DOMA from enjoying the 1000+ federal rights and responsibilities that go along with marriage, one could argue that New Jersey could offer civil unions and still comply with that 2006 ruling.
But the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor changed everything. Now, Section 3 of DOMA is no more. So for a same-sex couple in New Jersey, it makes an enormous difference whether you have a civil union or a full marriage. So today’s ruling by a state trial court makes perfect sense. As the court noted:
The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts: civil union partners who are federal employees living in New Jersey are ineligible for marital rights with regard to the federal pension system, all civil union partners who are employees working for businesses to which the Family and Medical Leave Act applies may not rely on its statutory protections for spouses, and civil union couples may not access the federal tax benefits that married couples enjoy. And if the trend of federal agencies deeming civil union partners ineligible for benefits continues, plaintiffs will suffer even more, while their opposite-sex New Jersey counterparts continue to receive federal marital benefits for no reason other than the label placed upon their relationships by the State.
So New Jersey, by denying marriage equality, is no longer in compliance with its state constitutional requirement of Equal Protection.
We do not yet know if New Jersey will appeal the decision and try to stop the state’s march toward equality.