TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey announced Monday that he would drop his legal challenge to same-sex marriage, hours after same-sex couples started exchanging vows in midnight ceremonies across the state.
Christie’s withdrawal of his appeal to the court decision that allowed the marriages came on the heels of a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court on Friday that rejected his attempt to block the marriages until the appeal was resolved. His decision effectively removed the last hurdle to making same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey.
“Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law,” a spokesman for Christie said in a note to reporters Monday morning. “The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
At 12:01 a.m., New Jersey joined 13 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay couples to marry.
As images of joyous wedding celebrations from Jersey City to Asbury Park filled the airwaves, Christie sent a letter overnight to the lawyers fighting on behalf of the gay couples in the court case, and to the Supreme Court, announcing that he would drop any further opposition.
Christie, a Republican widely considered a leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, has long tried to walk a fine line on same-sex marriage, which polls show is popular in his home state, but opposed by conservative voters in key primary states.
Last year, he vetoed legislation allowing same-sex marriage, arguing that voters should decide the issue in a referendum instead. As recently as last week, he repeated his position that he believed marriage to be between a man and a woman.
But the court was unanimous in its decision to deny the administration’s request for a stay on marriages, and the justices said in their decision that they believed the administration’s appeal had no “reasonable probability of success.”
The governor, in consultation with his attorney general and chief counsel, concluded it would be what one aide called “a fool’s errand” to continue in the face of almost certain failure.
Christie’s advisers said they did not believe it would hurt him politically; the governor has long branded himself as the kind of politician that voters like because they know where he stands, even if they do not agree with him. In this case, he can argue that he did not reverse his position; he still opposes same-sex marriage, but his back was to the wall.
In the short term – he stands for re-election in two weeks – he may win some votes in New Jersey. Among conservative voters in 2016, he can blame activist judges – an argument that also resonates among Republican primary voters.
“He looks realistic, while sticking to his principles – and people are happy,” said one adviser.
Lawrence Lustberg, who argued the case for the gay and lesbian couples before the state Supreme Court, said that as he attended the overnight wedding celebrations, he was anticipating the governor’s decision, which was then confirmed by the letter he received Monday morning.
“I think the handwriting was on the wall as clearly as it could possibly be,” he said. “The governor had always said he would fight this all the way up to the Supreme Court, but he didn’t say he was going to fight it to the Supreme Court twice. As a matter of reasonable lawyering on the one hand, and a clear perception of what the court’s position was on the other, this was inevitable.”
Advocates of same-sex marriage viewed Christie’s withdrawal from the legal battle as the victory they have long sought.
“This is the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day we’ve been fighting for. This is the day we won,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, the state’s most prominent gay rights group. “Marriage equality is the law of the land in New Jersey at last.”
But opponents of same sex marriage expressed their disappointment.
“The mark of a leader is to walk a principled walk no matter the difficulty of the path,” said Brian Brown, president of the nonprofit National Organization for Marriage. “Chris Christie has failed the test, abandoning both voters and the core institution of society – marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”