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The problem with Gov. Christie’s veto

Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

Yesterday, just like he promised to, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the marriage equality bill that passed the state legislature earlier this week.

Along with his veto, Christie has called for a referendum on the issue in November while simultaneously issuing insert-foot-here arguments suggesting that African-American civil rights leaders would have been “happy” to have a referendum on their rights.  While the governor has accused Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature of political theater, the truth is that either both sides of the issue in New Jersey are guilty of that charge, or neither are.

Supporters of the bill are taking a long-term strategy towards bringing marriage equality to the Garden State with a plan to gain enough support by 2014 to override the governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in both houses of the legislature.  Assembly Democrats have stated that they would have had two more votes in favor of marriage equality if two Republican members who were on vacation had taken part in Thursday’s vote.  That means supporters will have to court 10 more votes in the Assembly and three more in the Senate to override the veto.

Christie’s calculus on the issue is not difficult to ascertain.  As Steven Goldstein, Chair of Garden State Equality, said in a statement:

[Christie] won’t veto the bill because he’s anti-gay.  He’ll veto the bill because the 2016 South Carolina Republican Presidential primary electorate is anti-gay.  And if I get flooded with letters now from Charleston, so be it.

But despite Gov. Christie’s perhaps wise political choice regarding his future career, his veto threat may in fact be an dereliction of the duty pertaining to his current career.  As Tobias Wolff, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, astutely pointed out in an e-mail to’s Adam Bink:

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided, unanimously, that same-sex couples are entitled to fully equal treatment under the New Jersey Constitution.  Experience has demonstrated that civil unions fail to provide that fully equal treatment.  In enacting a marriage equality bill, the New Jersey legislature is fulfilling a constitutional mandate from the State’s highest court.

The case that Professor Wolff is referring to is Lewis v. Harris, a 2006 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that gay and lesbian couples in the state were entitled to the same equal protection as heterosexual couples.  In its ruling, the court stated:

We have decided that our State Constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples. Now the Legislature must determine whether to alter the long accepted definition of marriage.

This week, the Legislature did just that, determining that keeping the term ‘marriage’ from gay and lesbian couples is an unfair burden on those couples’ relationships.  In 2008, a Civil Union Review Commission comprised of clergy, lawyers, lawmakers and marriage equality activists unanimously recommended that New Jersey provide marriages to same-sex couples, saying that “civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey.”

By vetoing the marriage equality bill that the New Jersey legislature passed this week, Gov. Christie has expressly reneged on his constitutional responsibility to confer “every statutory right and benefit” to same-sex couples, and he has thwarted the power of the Legislature, provided by the state’s Supreme Court in 2006, to make the decision to provide the equal rights that Lewis mandated.

With his conditional veto, Christie is clearly trying to have it both ways on the issue of marriage equality.  In his statement, the governor said, “I have been just as adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples — as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits.”  He also called for creating an ombudsman position that would look into complaints lodged by couples that they have been discriminated against despite having entered into civil unions.

But as Judge Stephen Reinhardt so eloquently put it in his ruling striking down California’s Proposition 8 at the 9th Circuit, it is impossible to claim that gay and lesbian couples in civil unions deserve “the very same rights and benefits” as couples in marriages, while simultaneously arguing that they do not have the right to the term ‘marriage.’  The math here is not complex: either gay couples have all the same rights as straight couples, or they have all the same rights minus one–the right to call their unions what they really are.

Gov. Christie’s veto is not merely a matter of personal choice or a difference of opinion.  It is one man, disagreeing with other two branches of government in his state, making a conscious decision to withhold equal protection from a class of its citizens.


  • 1. thark  |  February 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Well written!

    This is a GOP decision that will possibly ruin any chances for Kristie to get beyond this governorship, for the exact reasons listed above. Nice job!

  • 2. Sagesse  |  February 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Yes but… there's nothing to stop him from doing it or to hold him accountable.

  • 3. DaveP  |  February 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Gay couples in New Jersey should file suit against him for failing to comply with the mandate of the court.

  • 4. DrRandy  |  February 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    I think that's probably the only recourse, short of impeaching him for failure to uphold his state's Constitution.

  • 5. DaveP  |  February 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Also good.

  • 6. Steve  |  February 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    There was a lawsuit filed a couple months ago

  • 7. Waxr  |  February 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Many Americans do not realize the difference between a marriage and a civil union.

  • 8. DaveP  |  February 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I'll bet they would the moment their state government tried to convert their legal civil marriage into a civil union.

  • 9. Chris  |  February 21, 2012 at 10:03 am

    That's what they did to my wife and me. We were legally married in another state, but NJ sees fit to place us in a legal arrangement we did NOT agree to ("civil union").

  • 10. Lymis  |  February 20, 2012 at 5:18 am

    The reason that many Americans don't realize the difference between a marriage and a civil union is that it never occurs to them to even think that a civil union is similar enough to a marriage to compare the two.
    We live in a state that didn't recognize our relationship at all until recently, but when we flew to California to get married, all our (Blue state, gay friendly) neighbors immediately knew what "married" was. Since then, we've gotten civil unions in our state, but nobody really knows (or cares, frankly) what it means unless the have to provide some benefit. Married, they get.

  • 11. Steve  |  February 20, 2012 at 5:49 am

    That's an unfortunate Americanism that's probably somewhat related to the ridiculous degree with which religion permeates and infests every aspect of public life. Other countries are different about this. In France for example, the verb "se pacser" has entered common language and in fact the majority of people who enter into civil partnerships there are straight. And PACS doesn't even offer the same benefits as a marriage. That these countries recognize registered partnerships at a federal level helps too though. As a result people can see such check boxes on many official forms

  • 12. Ann S.  |  February 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm


  • 13. Straight Dave  |  February 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    So Christie is a nice guy who chose to climb over the backs of his fellow citizens to further his own political career? I'd almost prefer that he said straight out that "I'm just an ignorant bigot who was brought up this way. I don't know any better and can't help myself. Blame my parents."
    He'd at least get half a point for honesty and integrity.

    But he may not truly be anti-gay, as the Garden State Equality president suggests

    He's worse.

    In light of the original NJ Supreme Court ruling in Lewis v Harris, the unanimous report of the bi-partisan Civil Union Review Commission which recommended full marriage rights, and the legislature subsequently doing their part, Christie whiffed big time. His name is now in the history books.

  • 14. John_B_in_DC  |  February 19, 2012 at 8:30 am

    This article suggests there are a few more votes to be had in NJ, even without much arm-twisting:

  • 15. bythesea  |  February 19, 2012 at 8:59 am

    It would seem the votes are pretty much there for override in the Senate, but who knows about the other House? I am sure there are more that are more persuadable votes there, but it may not be enough to override yet…

  • 16. Str8_Supporter  |  February 19, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Off topic but an interesting commentary in the Oregonian today (first published in the Los Angeles Times)…

    "Acceptance seems inevitable, but the fight goes on" by Michael J. Klarman.

  • 17. Sheryl_Carver  |  February 19, 2012 at 10:08 am

    And many of the comments on the article demonstrate WHY the fight will continue. Ignorance, illogic, & just plain bigotry will always be with us, the only change being the current targets.

  • 18. RWG  |  February 19, 2012 at 10:36 am

    The legislature should start impeachment proceedings against him. Even if they doesn't succeed, the effort will sap his ability to cause further mischief and will sully his reputation, as is so richly deserved. I also hope multiple lawsuits are filed against him, personally, for his failure to abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court. In short, make his life as miserable as possible, in a political sense. He sure doesn't care about the people of New Jersey, why should they concern themselves with his troubles?

  • 19. Lymis  |  February 20, 2012 at 5:20 am

    That would just mobilize the anti-gay forces, and focus the whole "gays aren't the victims, Christians are" machine in New Jersey.

  • 20. Warner  |  February 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

    so basically, can we get a lawsuit filed with the NJ supreme court to get the veto overided for not complying with the mandate of the court and the legislature?

  • 21. Larry  |  February 19, 2012 at 11:42 am

    I don't like the veto, but a veto is not itself unconstitutional. The NJ Supreme Court said that same sex couples are entitled to all the benefits of marriage, but that calling it marriages or civil unions is up to the legislature. As governor, Christie's obligation is to either approve or veto bills the legislature passes and he has chosen civil unions. Until the NJ Supreme Court decides on the new case working its way through the lower NJ courts, the only thing that can be done is to work on votes to override the veto.

  • 22. Conscience  |  February 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    The outcome that furthers ones political ambitions usually trumps minority rights, if need be.

  • 23. truthspew  |  February 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Two years to override a veto? Damnation that is a very long time.

  • 24. DaveP  |  February 19, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    At the rate our progress is moving everywhere, and at the rate that it is ACCELERATING, I don't think it will take anywhere near that long.

  • 25. Carpool Cookie  |  February 20, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Plus, as other legal decisions Re: Marriage Equality come rolling in, Christie's adimance will just stand out more and more.

  • 26. Sam_Handwich  |  February 20, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Too bad the NJ Supremes didn't follow the lead of the Mass SJC. When the legislature tried to weasel out of the Goodridge ruling by suggesting a civil union bill in 2004, the court shot back:

    The holding in Goodridge, by which we are bound, is that group classifications based on unsupportable distinctions, such as that embodied in the proposed bill, are invalid under the Massachusetts Constitution. The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal….

    We are of the opinion that Senate No. 2175 violates the equal protection and due process requirements of the Constitution of the Commonwealth and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. …. The bill maintains an unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples

    The answer to the question is "No."

  • 27. Lymis  |  February 20, 2012 at 7:51 am

    What I would love to see, but I know I never, ever would, would be a Supreme Court that said, "Okay, we told you that you have to give everyone the same rights, however you went about it. Effective immediately, all marriages in New Jersey are annulled and replaced with civil unions."

  • 28. grod  |  February 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Lymis, if only courts behave the way you fantasize. What you "would like to see" is a means to get the governor's veto before the court. What I propose may also be a fantasy but in Prop 8 the Federal Appeals Court posed questions to the California Supreme Court on the understanding that the iranswers, while not binding would be given serious consideration. In Canada, both at the provincial and federal levels, the executive can pose questions to the Courts, the answers of which while not binding, carry weight. But this is the legislative branch, seeking clarification of role of the legislature in circumstances similar to the Lewis decision 2006. Perhaps the Court would be willing to provide an answer to division of jurisdiction of the different branches of the state. It’s a constitutional question. Just wondering….

  • 29. Equality On Trial »&hellip  |  July 2, 2013 at 6:10 am

    […] the New Jersey legislature approved a marriage equality bill, which Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed, expressing a desire for a popular referendum on equal marriage rights in the state.  Democrats in […]

  • 30. Equality On Trial »&hellip  |  July 8, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    […] New Jersey legislature approved a marriage equality bill, which Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed, expressing a desire for a popular referendum on equal marriage rights in the state.  Democrats in […]

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