I’m a little surprised, even though he’s undoubtedly correct that the appeal was doomed. The New Jersey Supreme Court all but legalized gay marriage in its provisional ruling on Friday; a final ruling next year upholding that judgment was a fait accompli.
But as we spent the last three weeks discovering, the fact that a fight is obviously unwinnable and possibly self-defeating from the start is no excuse not to undertake it.
Gov. Chris Christie announced today that he was dropping the fight against same-sex marriage in New Jersey by withdrawing his his appeal of a major case that was being heard by the state Supreme Court…
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, said that Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, writing for the court in a 7-0 opinion last Friday, “left no ambiguity about the unanimous court’s view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, ‘same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today.'”…
“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,” Reed said. “The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
Here’s the NJSC’s provisional order from Friday, tucked away at the end of BuzzFeed’s post. Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Windsor case this past summer that the U.S. government must extend federal benefits to gay couples if they’re lawfully married in their home state, New Jersey’s refusal to grant marital status (as opposed to civil-union status) to gays now effectively denies them access to federal benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled. The state ruling follows from the SCOTUS equal-protection ruling, which is why lots of people thought that the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor would lead to more court-imposed gay marriage in blue states sooner rather than later. Read the order and you’ll see that, despite its willingness to hold hearings and issue a final ruling next year, the New Jersey Supreme Court had assuredly made up its mind. If there were any silver-bullet arguments against SSM left in the state’s arsenal, they would have been fired already.
The calculus for Christie here was to either (1) show conservatives that he’s willing to “fight the good fight” to the very end by appealing despite the total unlikelihood of success or (2) show New Jersey’s blue electorate that he’s willing to be “reasonable” and not fight to the very end when local news channels are airing footage of happy gay couples celebrating their marriages this morning. The risk in choosing door number two is that he’ll now be attacked by his opponents in the 2016 primaries for having “surrendered” on the issue, even though he vetoed a gay-marriage bill when it came to his desk last year and said all the right things about SCOTUS’s decisions this summer. The risk in choosing door number one is that he’ll face a backlash from New Jersey voters two weeks before the gubernatorial election — not remotely big enough for him to lose, granted, but big enough maybe to deny him the landslide he’s craving. Electability is, after all, 95 percent of Christie’s argument for the GOP nomination three years from now. It’s not enough to win reelection, which is a lock; he wants to run up the score to show national Republicans that he’s the only guy in the field who can make Hillary worry. Christie’s dream scenario (which he’d never admit to, of course) is that he wins by 25 points in Jersey while true conservative Ken Cuccinelli ends up getting blown out in purplish Virginia. That one-two punch will give a lot of conservatives who dislike Christie pause in ruling him out categorically for 2016.
The reason I’m a little surprised is that it’s hard for me to believe, given his track record of principled opposition to SSM, that quietly appealing Friday’s NJSC provisional order would do him any damage over the next two weeks. If you’re a Jerseyite who’s willing to vote against Christie because of gay marriage, you should have written him off long ago due to his veto. If you’re on the fence, you should have some small reservoir of goodwill for him for signing a bill two months ago banning “conversion therapy” for gay kids. He’s assuming, I guess, that his overall anti-SSM track record will neutralize the “surrender” arguments against him in 2016, but if Tom Coburn can be rebranded a RINO simply for disagreeing with the “defund” strategy, I’m sure Christie can be rebranded as pro-gay-marriage for this. Probably won’t matter much either way, though. If you hate him already, you hate him even more now. If you don’t, who cares about the appeal?