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In the Garden State, Wedding Bells Chime for Same-Sex Couples

"Courts are not usually as blunt as this one was about the state’s appeal," said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers and a professor of political science. “It was almost like they were saying ‘go back to law school.’ I can’t imagine how the court could rule any other way come January.”

The state’s argument that it would suffer “an injury to its sovereign interests” were “one of its democratically enacted laws … declared unconstitutional” Rabner wrote, “begs the ultimate question: if a law is unconstitutional, how is the state harmed by not being able to enforce it?”

The ruling then goes on to criticize the state for “flipping” the normal standard that case law should have been settled in the state’s favor for a stay to be issued and arguing, instead, that federal law is unsettled. The state, Rabner wrote, is arguing that federal law should cover couples in civil unions, but has not addressed what actually was put in place at the federal level.

“[F]ederal agencies,” Rabner wrote, “have directed that various benefits be made available to same-sex married couples, but not to civil-union partners. That, in turn, deprives partners in a civil union of the rights and benefits they would receive as married couples.”

In addition, the court said, the state is wrong in its belief that the court would be interfering with the “democratic process” in ruling to legalize same-sex marriage.

“[W]hen a party presents a clear case of ongoing unequal treatment, and asks the court to vindicate constitutionally protected rights, a court may not sidestep its obligation to rule for an indefinite amount of time,” Rabner wrote. “Under those circumstances, courts do not have the option to defer.”

The “public interest does not favor a stay,” Rabner concluded.

The administration issued a terse response on Friday, saying it would abide by the ruling and ordered municipalities to move forward with the issuance of marriage licenses.

"The Supreme Court has made its determination,” Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email. “While the governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the State of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order of the Superior Court under the applicable law."

While observers say the court has made clear its intentions, the effect that Friday’s ruling might have on the state Legislature is unclear.

Both houses backed legislation in February 2012 that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Gov. Chris Christie immediately issued a conditional veto that struck down the bill but would have put the issue before the voters this November.

Democrats opposed the ballot question and have promised an override vote, but they have been waiting for the lame-duck session -- after the 2013 election and before the swearing in of a new Legislature in January. It is possible that the court ruling could free some legislators to change their original votes and back an override, but observers say it is as likely that Republican legislators will not want to buck Christie and instead will allow the court to act.

The court’s decision was technically a temporary one, tied to the request from the Christie administration to stay a lower court decision issued last month. The September ruling by Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson found that changes in federal law brought about by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor meant that same-sex couples in New Jersey were now treated differently under the law in violation of the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

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