Super Court Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg ruled Feb. 21 that the plaintiff couples in a suit against the state of New Jersey can argue that the lack of a marriage-equality law violates their 14th Amendment rights.
Feinberg previously dismissed the federal equal-protection violation but was petitioned by plaintiffs to reconsider it.
The state’s Attorney General’s office has not yet decided if it will appeal.
Feinberg’s ruling came just days after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a marriage-equality bill passed for the first time by both chambers of the legislature. Advocates will have until January 2014 to muster enough votes for an override, or success could also come from the courts.
Lambda Legal filed the suit last summer on behalf of seven same-sex couples and Garden State Equality, arguing four counts of rights violations under both the state and federal constitutions.
In November, however, Feinberg dismissed all but one count — the state equal-protections claim.
Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, said the reinstatement of the federal claim was a boon for the plaintiffs.
“Having both a state and federal equal-protection claim will only make our case stronger,” he said. “We look forward to presenting a complete record of the discrimination that New Jersey’s same-sex couples and their children face because of their relegation to civil unions rather than marriage.”
Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, said the ruling continues the momentum marriage equality has found in recent weeks in New Jersey.
“The majority of voters are in favor of marriage equality, the legislature is in favor of marriage equality and now we intend to show that both the state and federal constitutions bar the second-class treatment New Jersey is now providing,” he said.
In her opinion, Feinberg said evolving court precedents on the issue of same-sex marriage helped support her reversal.
She cited the recent Proposition 8 case in California, in which last month an appeals court panel upheld a lower court’s decision that the voter ban on same-sex marriage violated gays’ and lesbians’ federal equal-protection rights.
Feinberg wrote that, unlike Prop. 8, New Jersey’s civil-union law “was intended to confer more benefits on same-sex couples, rather than take them away,” but that, the New Jersey law is “arguably similar because it singles out a certain class of citizens, namely gays and lesbians, for allegedly disfavored treatment.”
A trial in the case is expected in 2013.
Jen Colletta can be reached at email@example.com.