New Jersey generated national legal headlines several times in 2013. Here is a brief retrospective of the decisions, laws, and other legal developments that will be remembered well into the New Year.
· Same-sex marriage: New Jersey was one of several states to legalize same-sex marriage in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic decision to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In Garden State Equality v. Dow, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that the state must authorize same-sex marriages in addition to civil unions in order to comply with the equal protection clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. The first marriages were performed in October, after Gov. Chris Christie failed appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
· Distracted driving: The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court became the first court in the country to rule that the sender of a text message could be held liable to a third party injured in car accident caused by the recipient of the text. As explained by the court, “A person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving.” However, in the wake of the groundbreaking opinion, lawmakers are seeking to prohibit text sender claims, citing that the murky legal decision is likely to create legal headaches rather than deter unsafe driving behaviors.
· Mt. Holly settlement: While New Jersey appeared likely to take center stage at the U.S. Supreme Court this term, the parties to Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action agreed to settle the case just prior to scheduled oral arguments. The case revolved around the Township of Mount Holly’s plan to redevelop a blighted residential area known as the Gardens and would have determined whether disparate impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. Under the terms of the Mount Holly settlement, the township will provide new homes to the displaced residents who filed suit or pay fair market value for their homes.
· Special election: Following the death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, debate swirled around the proper procedure for filling the vacancy. The controversy centered on two New Jersey election statutes that offer different timelines for holding a special election to elect a permanent successor. After much debate, Christie appointed state attorney general Jeffrey Chiesa to temporarily fill the vacancy and scheduled a special election in October, the earlier of the two deadlines. Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker was elected to serve out the year and a half remaining on Lautenberg’s term.
· Expanded gaming: New Jersey made significant strides to expand its gambling activities in 2013. This fall, the state legalized in-state Internet gambling, becoming the third state in the country to do so. Analysts predict New Jersey’s online gaming industry be worth up to $1 billion in three years. To further boost tax revenues, lawmakers are now considering additional legislation that would allow foreign casinos and gaming companies who solicit online bets from people outside of the U.S. to base their operations in Atlantic City. However, it was not all good news for gaming supporters. Gov. Christie’s efforts to legalize sports betting in the state have been unsuccessful, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court as the last resort.