Eyes will be on Gov. Chris Christie’s choice for interim U.S. senator in New Jersey if bills sought by LGBT advocates come up for a vote on the floor while he occupies the seat.
On Thursday, Christie announced that he’s designating New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to occupy the seat on an interim basis after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Chiesa will hold the seat until New Jersey voters decide on a permanent U.S. senator in a special election set for Oct. 16.
It’s unclear where Chiesa stands on federal LGBT issues. Christie’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request from the Washington Blade to comment on Chiesa’s views
But during a Jan. 25, 2012 interview with NJ Today, Chiesa spoke out on the issue of defending state law against pending litigation seeking marriage equality in New Jersey. Articulating a somewhat neutral position, Chiesa said he’ll defend the law banning same-sex marriage, or defend the law if it were changed.
“My role as the legal adviser is to defend the constitution and the laws as they’re passed,” Chiesa said. “We’ll continue to do that. The laws as they’re in place right now to the extend that they’re being contested as being unconstitutional, my office will continue to assert their constitutionality, and if there’s other laws that are passed, it’ll be our job to do the same thing whatever the state of the law is.”
Litigation pending before the state court in New Jersey seeking marriage equality, known as Garden State Equality v. Dow, was filed by Lambda Legal and the statewide LGBT advocacy group Garden State Equality. State officials in other states — such as California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — have refused to defend bans on same-sex marriage against similar lawsuits.
Also on the issue of marriage, Chiesa never changed an existing opinion from previous New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow saying out-of-state same-sex marriages won’t be recognized in the Garden State.
TJ Helmstetter, a spokesperson for Garden State Equality, said Chiesa was “a surprise pick” and hopes the new interim senator will take the opportunity to learn more about them during his role as U.S. senator.
“We hope that during his time in Washington, however that short that is, that he uses that time like so many other members of both parties to evolve on issues of equality and to really get with the rest of New Jersey, the majority of New Jerseyans, who support fairness for all families,” Helmstetter said.
But there’s some evidence of support. Helmstetter praised Chiesa for work in implementing and defending the LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying legislation that Christie signed into law.
“We must give credit where credit is due, and this AG has been helpful, for instance, in defending the anti-bullying ‘Bill of Rights,’ working with our organization to make sure that New Jersey has the strongest anti-bullying bill, not only in law but also in fact,” Helmstetter said.
Chiesa’s views on LGBT issues will be important as LGBT advocates seek to overcome the 60-vote threshold to beat a filibuster on bills that may come to the floor in the coming months, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Uniting American Families Act. Education reform legislation that includes the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act — which a Senate committee will start considering on Tuesday — may also come to the floor.
A “no” vote from the Republican would be particularly poignant because Chiesa is occupying a seat held by Lautenberg, whom LGBT advocates praised as a “champion for equality” upon his death his earlier this week.
Chiesa’s views may conform to those views of Christie, who opposes same-sex marriage and vetoed a bill that would have legalized it in the state, but also signed into law one of the strongest LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying bills in the country.
But Helmstetter said it’s possible that state laws in New Jersey against LGBT employment non-discrimination and anti-LGBT bullying would prompt him to vote in favor of similar measures on a federal level.
“I would that expect Chiesa — coming from a state that is so overwhelmingly pro-equality and already has protections in place around employment and so many other areas — that he would take that knowledge from a pro-equality state to Washington and help spread that equality on a federal level,” Helmstetter said.