Same-Sex Marriage in 2013: The State Cases

January 23, 2014

Army ssm wedding ringsIn the last post Brian discussed major federal court developments from last year on the topic of same-sex marriage; in this post I’ll take a look at how three state courts handled the issue in 2013.

In September, the Mercer County Superior Court of New Jersey held in Garden State Equality v. Dow that, even though New Jersey allowed same-sex couples to enter civil unions, denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution. In so holding, the court relied on the fact that, in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, several federal agencies had extended marital benefits to same-sex married couples, but not to same-sex civil union couples. As a result, the court found that New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions were not afforded the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex married couples. The Superior Court subsequently denied the State’s motion for a stay pending appeal, and the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the denial of the stay. Governor Chris Christie then withdrew the State’s appeal noting the court had “spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution.”

In October, the Missouri Supreme Court distinguished Windsor in Gossip v. Missouri Dep’t of Transportation when it held that the same-sex partner of a deceased highway patrolman killed in the line of duty was not deprived of his equal protection rights under the Missouri Constitution when he was denied benefits under Missouri’s survivor benefits statute. Despite the Missouri Constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage, and the fact that the term “spouse,” in the survivor benefits statute, only recognized marriages between a man and a woman, the court found the survivor benefits statute restricted benefits based on marital status, not sexual orientation. In reaching its conclusion, the court noted that, unlike Windsor, the plaintiff had not been married under the law of another state or jurisdiction, and stressed that the plaintiff specifically disclaimed any challenge to Missouri’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In December, the year ended with a victory for same-sex marriage advocates in New Mexico, with the Supreme Court of New Mexico holding, in Griego v. Oliver that New Mexico’s marriage statutes, which included a mix of gender-neutral and gender-specific terminology, deprived same-sex couples and their families of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage, and, therefore, violated the equality demanded by the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution. As a remedy, instead of striking down the marriage laws, the court construed the term “civil marriage” to mean the voluntary union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.