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Friday, February 17, 2012

Gay Marriage in New Jersey

Just after New Jersey’s legislature passed a law legalizing gay marriage, Gov. Chris Christie followed through on his promise to reject the bill by quickly vetoing it and renewing his call for a ballot question to decide the issue. In returning the bill to the Legislature, Christie reaffirmed his view that voters should decide whether to change the definition of marriage in New Jersey.
"I am adhering to what I've said since this bill was first introduced – an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide," Christie said in a statement. "I continue to encourage the Legislature to trust the people of New Jersey and seek their input by allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change. This is the only path to amend our State Constitution and the best way to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage in our state.” Why stop at issues requiring a constitutional amendment? Although technical legislation requires representatives to wade through and discern specific ramifications pro and con, broad policy questions could also be subject to binding referendums. That is to say, representatives could be seen as doing only what the electorate cannot viably do.

Whether enacted by a legislature or by direct democracy, a law that takes basic rights away from a minority such as gays could be illegitimate even though passed democratically. According to the New York Times, Democrats in the New Jersey legislature argued “that same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights, and that civil rights should not be subject to referendum.”  In other words, there are limits even to direct democracy, and the courts have a legitimate role in interpreting whether individual rights have been inordinately oppressed by the will of the majority.

In terms of legitimacy, passing gay marriage by referendum is the most legitimate, and without any need for the courts to step in to look at the matter of individual rights. Next legitimate would be such a law passed by a legislature. Again, the judiciary would not need to look at whether a minority is being tyrannized by a majority. Where a referendum or legislature passes a law or constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage, as in 30 of the American republics at the time of Christie’s action, the democratic rights of a majority are pitted against the civil rights of a minority. Courts could look at existing constitutional articles to assess whether an amendment is constitutional. However, it is conceivable that such articles could be changed such that an amendment that refuses the right of a minority could not be touched by a court.

To take another example, all of the federal and state constitutional articles that prohibit slavery could be repealed and a new amendment making the practice legal would make it constitutional. No court could touch it because courts are limited to interpreting constitutions. In the case of gay marriage, the current equal protection language could be used to declare a federal amendment barring gay marriage unconstitutional. What if the due process language were changed by amendment and an anti-marriage amendment added? The U.S. Supreme Court could be forced to defend the new amendment if nothing else in the U.S. constitution could render the addition unconstitutional. Where the amendment is to a state constitution, planks from the federal constitution could be used, as was the case in California on Proposition 8 a week or two before the New Jersey legislature passed gay marriage.

From this “case study,” we can take away the following points:

1.      On matters of broad policy, in which ideological judgment is more salient than technical knowledge, direct democracy is more legitimate than representative democracy. Such policy need not be limited to matters requiring constitutional amendment. Invading Iraq and extending the federal debt ceiling are two cases in point.

2.      The majority acting to protect minority rights by legislative means or a referendum is the best case scenario in a republic because no constitutional interpretation by judges is necessary. 

3.      Where legislation or a referendum bars a minority from exercising a right, the legitimacy of majority rule is pitted against that of individual rights. Accordingly, the judiciary has a legitimate interpretive role as such matters must be judged.

Kate Zernike, “Gay Marriage, Passed, Awaits Veto by Christie,” The New York Times, February 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/nyregion/veto-awaits-new-jersey-bill-allowing-gays-to-wed.html

Angela Santi, “New Jersey Gay Marriage Bill Vetoed By Chris Christie,” The Huffington Post, February 17, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/17/new-jersey-gay-marriage-b_0_n_1284641.html