A New Jersey state court judge in Trenton today expressed skepticism towards state officials' claims in defense of New Jersey's decision to offer civil unions but not equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, particularly in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act.
In questions posed to lawyers from both sides, however, Judge Mary Jacobson (pictured below) showed hesitation towards moving too fast on a constitutional issue of such importance, asking for further briefing and telling lawyers not to expect a ruling until next month at the earliest.
"Federalism is messy," the judge said matter-of-factly early on during the proceedings, succinctly summing up the complexities present in the legal challenge, known as Garden State Equality v. Dow and brought by Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group.
At issue today was a motion for summary judgment--essentially, a request for a decision to be rendered without a full trial--filed by Lambda Legal. In that brief and during today's oral arguments, the legal group claimed that because married same-sex couples can now access federal benefits after the invalidation of DOMA's Section 3, New Jersey's decision to offer only civil unions (which do not provide federal benefits) to same-sex couples comprises an unconstitutional violation of these couples' equal protection rights under both the state and federal constitutions.
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Lewis v. Harris that same-sex couples must be afforded the same rights and benefits as different-sex couples, although the court allowed the legislature to create a separate legal status providing such rights, which it did.
During today's proceedings, New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Kevin Jespersen trod a thin line, circling back several times to one fundamental question: can a state court, relying on the New Jersey Constitution, take action against the state for a deprivation of rights and benefits by the federal government? Because the state court has no jurisdiction to order federal agencies to extend benefits to same-sex couples, Jespersen argued, and New Jersey has done everything within its power to make civil unions and marriages legally equivalent, there is no action the court can take in response to Lambda Legal's constitutional claims.
At the same time, however, Jespersen--echoing New Jersey's larger argument--told the court that New Jersey's civil unions should make same-sex couples eligible for federal benefits because of the Supreme Court's decision striking down DOMA in the case known as U.S. v. Windsor. In that case, the high court ruled that the federal government could not withhold federal benefits from same-sex couples whom states (such as New York, the state at issue in the Windsor case) had taken action to protect by offering them equal marriage rights.
By extension, Jespersen argued, the federal government should be required to defer to state law in determining which couples are considered to be married in order to determine eligibility for federal benefits, rather then only looking to whether couple's are married or unmarried. Judge Jacobson pushed back on this argument, telling Jespersen he was "asking the federal government to do something very complicated"--that is, to look at each state's laws in determining how to disburse each and every federal marital benefit.
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