Decision brings state one-state closer to full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today celebrated a victory in a case that allows a same-sex couple married outside the state to get divorced in the New Jersey courts.
"While the day a relationship ends is never happy, I am relieved that the courts of New Jersey are allowing us to move on, rather than keeping our relationship status in legal limbo," said LaKia Hammond, the ACLU-NJ client who was granted a divorce in New Jersey today. "Breaking up is painful enough, and I'm happy we won't have to face the hardship of having to fight just to make it official."
Despite Hammond's valid marriage in Canada, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General argued that the couple should not be granted a divorce. Rather, the state attorney suggested that the couple should be granted "dissolution of civil union." However, as the ACLU-NJ argued, without an actual divorce from their marriage, the couple might still be considered legally married in Canada as well as in U.S. states that recognize same-sex marriages but do not have civil unions.
"The judge properly recognized that if you come to New Jersey with a valid marriage, you are entitled to leave with a divorce," said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who, along with Avidan Cover of Gibbons and solo practitioner Stephen Hyland, represented LaKia Hammond as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU-NJ. "Not granting a divorce in this situation would create confusion and undermine the longstanding legal principle of comity, which requires us to respect laws of other countries."
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson recognized that New Jersey accepts all foreign marriages except for ones that are affronts to New Jersey public policy. The Office of the Attorney General could muster no legitimate argument in this case to justify such an exception, especially given that the New Jersey Supreme Court had made clear that allowing marriages of same-sex couples could be permissible in New Jersey.
In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Harris that the state cannot create a system that imposes greater legal or economic hardships on same-sex couples that are not placed on opposite-sex couples. Not allowing the couple a divorce would have forced them to begin a second legal process to completely end their legal relationship, placing additional economic and legal burdens on same-sex couples.
"This decision is a step in the right direction, but one that never should have had to be made," said Hyland. "The Attorney General needlessly created confusion and legal problems for these couples. She should simply recognize out-of-state marriages -- the only way to ensure equal treatment for couples married outside of New Jersey."
The decision puts into question the legality of the Attorney General's 2007 formal opinion ordering that out-of-state marriages not be accepted as marriages but, rather, be transformed into civil unions.
Today's decision comes just over a month after the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, tasked with examining the effects of the 2007 civil union law, determined that the legal category was separate and unequal.
"By creating a separate system of rights and by injecting language and titles not understood or easily incorporated into existing real-life events and transactions, the Civil Unions Law has failed to fulfill the promise of equality," said Ed Barocas in testimony before the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which in December 2008 declared civil unions to be separate and unequal. "The continued injustice for our state's gay and lesbian citizens exists on levels both profound and mundane."