While much of the nation was talking about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, couples in New Jersey were celebrating a victory that took place closer to home.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey judge ruled that New Jersey couples who enter into civil unions are entitled to no-fault divorce, just as any other married couple. While it may seem strange to consider a decision on divorce to be a “win,” the ruling brings same-sex couples closer to equal rights under the law, something they have yet to attain, even in states that recognize the right to marry.
Up until last year, New Jersey did not allow same-sex couple to marry. Rather, civil unions were the only way for same-sex couples to obtain legal recognition. According to the latest statistics, 6,875 couples have entered into civil unions since the law took effect in 2006. The latest court decision helps ensure that ending the relationship does not have to be a drawn out and expensive legal process.
In Groh v. Groh, Ocean County Family Judge Lawrence Jones ruled that irreconcilable differences is a valid grounds for terminating a civil union, although not expressly referenced in the state’s civil union law. Jones’ decision rested on Lewis v. Harris, in which the state’s highest court held that the New Jersey Constitution mandated that same-sex couples should have rights, benefits and responsibilities as those enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.
As he further explained: “Based upon the near-identical nature of the respective causes of action for divorce and dissolution of civil union[s], it is self-evident that as of Dec. 20, 2006, the legislature’s intent was to create symmetry between the recognized causes of action for divorce and dissolution of a civil union, in a manner consistent with the terms and constitutional spirit of Lewis v. Harris.”
Judge Jones also noted that it is not surprising that irreconcilable differences was omitted from the civil union statutes, as it was not yet available for heterosexual married couples when the law was enacted.
“Against this backdrop, it is logical to conclude that had married couples in New Jersey been legally allowed at that time to dissolve their marriages based upon the no-fault grounds of irreconcilable differences, a similar right and cause of action would have been included … expressly providing an equal right for same-sex couples to seek no-fault dissolution on such grounds,” he wrote.
Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs. He has newly formed a super PAC that The Bergen Record reported about here.