The Garden State Equality suit was filed in 2010 and sought an immediate Supreme Court ruling. The court sent the suit back to the lower courts to “develop a record”; after the DOMA decision in June, however, the plaintiffs sought summary judgment, arguing that New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions would be treated differently under federal law than married couples.
Jacobson agreed with the Garden State Equality plaintiffs. She said in her decision that the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which invalidated section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, meant that New Jersey same-sex couples would not have access to “many federal benefits.”
“[T]his court holds that New Jersey’s denial of marriage to same-sex couples now violates” the state constitution’s equal-protection clause, she wrote. “The equality demanded by Lewis v. Harris now requires that same-sex couples in New Jersey be allowed to marry.”
Gorenberg said Judge Jacobson recognized that “with no federal barrier, the State of New Jersey is all that stands between our plaintiffs and the full recognition of their rights.” She said there are 1,138 citations of marriage in federal statutes covering everything from tax and immigration law to Social Security and spousal recognition by the military. Federal law does not recognize civil unions and it was unlikely that it would anytime in the near future, she said. Only marriage, which is governed by state laws, is recognized, which meant that New Jersey needed to allow same-sex marriages.
The judge, Gorenberg said, found that “state action is the root, the structure that deprives people of their benefits.”
Though a challenge is expected, Gorenberg is confident that the Supreme Court will uphold Jacobson’s decision. Plaintiffs also plan to challenge any request for a stay of the decision, because “the harm to people is too extreme.”
“There are over 16,000 same-sex couples in New Jersey, many raising children,” she said. “All that happens by appealing this case is that we will be jeopardizing their rights to federal benefits.”
Larry Lustberg, of the Newark law firm Gibbons P.C., which also represented the plaintiffs, said Friday that, were a stay to be granted, they would move quickly to respond. “If there is a stay and my clients cannot get married, I am going to go directly to the Supreme Court and skip over the appellate decision,” he said.
Same-sex couples were both joyous and cautious in the wake of the decision. Most said they planned to file for licenses on October 21.
Louise Walpin and Marsha Shapiro, of South Brunswick, have been together for 24 years. They signed on as plaintiffs in the Garden State Equality suit because they said they felt unprotected by the state’s civil unions law, which they said confers second-class citizenship on gay and lesbian couples.
“This is the first day that we are full citizens,” Shapiro said. “This was the only thing standing in the way.”