August 5, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Christie cautions against quick court action on marriage
Attorneys for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are urging quick court action in favor of marriage equality (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Attorneys for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are urging the New Jersey Supreme Court to reject a request for a quick ruling in favor of marriage equality on the basis that gay couples are eligible for federal benefits under civil unions — an argument one LGBT advocate is calling “pure nonsense.”

In a 41-page legal brief, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman lays out five reasons why the New Jersey Supreme Court shouldn’t issue summary judgment in favor of a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage in the case of Garden State Equality v. Dow.

Among the arguments is the assertion that gay couples living in civil unions under New Jersey law are entitled to the federal benefits of marriage in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“The examples are endless,” the brief states. “Suffice it to say that a sizable, but indeterminate, number of the over 1,000 benefits and responsibilities that were inapplicable to civil union couples because of DOMA are now available to them because they are spouses, husbands, wives, widows or widowers under New Jersey law.”

The brief, which is Christie’s first legal statement on same-sex marriage, implicitly criticizes the Obama administration for withholding the federal benefits of marriage from gay couples in civil unions.

“[Any] federal policy or directive or interpretation of Windsor that denies benefits to civil union partners violates the due process and equal protections provisions of the United States Constitution as well as New Jersey’s sovereignty rights,” the brief states.

The characterization that the Obama administration is withholding these benefits from gay couples in civil unions thus far is correct. Upon announcing last month that gay federal employees in same-sex marriages would be eligible for spousal benefits in the aftermath of DOMA, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced couples in civil unions and domestic partnerships won’t be able to receive those benefits.

The brief’s novel embrace of the Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act is noteworthy for Christie, who previously called the decision “inappropriate,” “wrong” and an example of “judicial supremacy.”

Other arguments the administration makes against summary judgment in favor of marriage equality include 1) the burden of proof is on plaintiffs to prove civil unions are contrary to the state constitution; 2) summary judgment shouldn’t be granted in a case with far-reaching consequences; and 3) New Jersey has a rational basis to enact civil unions and not same-sex marriage.

“If plaintiffs’ premise were correct, then, theoretically, the Civil Union Act could be valid under the State Constitution prior to Windsor; invalid at some indeterminate point post-DOMA because the Obama administration interprets Windsor to preclude the provisions of federal benefits to civil union spouses; then valid again at some even later date if the administration’s policy changes or if a subsequent administration refuses to interpret Windsor in such a cramped, hypertextual way,” the brief states.

In an opinion piece on Slate.com, Nathaniel Frank, an LGBT advocate known for his work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” says Christie’s argument is “pure nonsense” and “reads like a bad student paper.”

“The trouble is, New Jersey did not intend to treat gay couples equally,” Frank writes. “If it did, it would have actually made them spouses, granting them access to marriage—to the word itself. This is the precise meaning of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that separate is ‘inherently unequal.’ Awarding equivalent material benefits does not erase the stigma of separating a class of people from the core institutions of American life.”

The Christie brief responds to a request for summary judgment that was filed on July 3 by the plaintiffs in the case following the U.S. Supreme Court decision against DOMA. The case seeking marriage equality was filed in 2011 by Lambda Legal on behalf of Garden State Equality and six same-sex couples seeking marriage rights in New Jersey. The next step in the case is oral arguments, which are set for Aug. 15.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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