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December 22, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 51
 
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N.J. governor signs civil unions law - State Supreme Courts in Massachusetts, California hear arguments in marriage cases
N.J. governor signs civil unions law - State Supreme Courts in Massachusetts, California hear arguments in marriage cases
by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed landmark civil union legislation on Thursday, December 21. In less than 60 days the new law will go into effect and the state will become the third to offer civil unions and the fifth to allow some version of marriage.

Earlier this month, both houses of the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to adopt the measure. On October 25, 2006, state Supreme Court decision gave the Legislature just 180 days to extend the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples that married heterosexual couples already enjoy. However, the court declined to define the new package of rights and benefits; allowing lawmakers to take the civil unions route.

The law expands upon the state's limited domestic partnership arrangements, which were passed in 2004, to include benefits like the ability to take a partner's surname without going to court, inheritance rights and adoption privileges. The law also extends to court proceedings, hospital visitation and medical decision-making. However, the new rights are not recognized by the federal government, which defines marriage narrowly as only between a man and a woman.

Although welcomed by advocates for full marriage equality, many equate civil unions with the "separate but equal" dogma of the past. Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said he looks forward to the country's lawmakers taking the next step.

"Today is only the beginning in our journey to obtain full marriage equality for all Americans," said Solmonese. "Loving and devoted same-sex couples in New Jersey have finally received some of the legal recognitions they deserve. However, there remains much work to be done in order to ensure that this is not the end, but instead only a step on the road to full marriage equality."

The law leaves open the possibility of allowing same-sex couples to legally wed at a later date and creates a 13-member civil unions review commission to investigate how civil unions fall short of marriage equality. The commission-the first of its kind in the nation-will issue public reports of its findings every six months.

A new Garden State Equality-Zogby poll found that 65 percent of New Jerseyans believe marriage equality is inevitable, while only 28 percent do not.

MASSACHUSETTS
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the state's highest court heard oral arguments on Thursday, December 21, in Doyle v. Secretary of the Commonwealth. In the case, Gov. Mitt Romney, one of the plaintiffs, asked the court to force legislators to vote on whether a constitutional amendment banning equal marriage rights for same-sex couples should be put on the ballot.

The lawsuit was filed in November after lawmakers postponed action on the proposed ballot question until the last day of the legislative session, which falls on January 2. Unless the court intervenes, the constitutional amendment is likely to die in the Legislature.

"The Court has repeatedly affirmed the Legislature's authority to act on citizen amendments in accord with its normal procedural rules," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "This case asks the Court to impose new standards and forbid the Legislature from using their own procedural rules on citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

"Legally, there is nothing new in this case. The questions asked by the plaintiffs have been answered by the Supreme Judicial Court consistently and repeatedly over the years. We see this action for what it is - an attempt to change the rules and create more onerous burdens just because it is the rights of a minority at issue."

In 2004, Massachusetts became the only state to marry same-sex couples. CALIFORNIA
On Wednesday, December 20, the California Supreme Court this week agreed to hear appeals in six lawsuits seeking to end the current ban on equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"We are delighted that the Court ruled so quickly and unanimously to grant review," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). "This is yet another indication that the California Supreme Court appreciates the importance of this issue not only for same-sex couples and their children, but for the entire state. We are grateful to the Court for moving so quickly and hopeful the Court will stand up for basic fairness and bring an end to the current ban on marriage for an entire group of Californians."

In April 2005, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard A. Kramer ruled that barring same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional, discriminates on the basis of sex and violates the fundamental right to marry. However, the California Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in a 2-1 decision last month.

The couples and organizations are represented by lead counsel from the NCLR, Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, Heller Ehrman LLP, and the Law Office of David C. Codell.

"The people who represent Californians in the state Legislature have already passed a bill that would remove all doubt that same-sex couples are free to marry in the Golden State, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it," said Lambda Legal's Legal Director Jon W. Davidson. "So long as California's statues deny same-sex couples and their children equality, it's up to the California Supreme Court to decide the issue once and for all."

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