US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Judge in N.J. same-sex marriage case has deep Catholic roots

By Thomas Zambito | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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c. 2013 The Star-Ledger

BAYONNE, N.J. (RNS) — The judge who declared same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey was raised a Catholic in Bayonne, a place where the locals still use their church — not their neighborhood — to define where they’re from.

Judge Mary Jacobson graduated in 1971 from Holy Family Academy, a since-shuttered all-girls Catholic high school near her home.

“In Bayonne, you identified yourself by your parish,” said Thomas Olivieri, a retired Superior Court judge in Hudson County and a Bayonne native. “Mary’s family was from St. Mary’s parish. Ours was from St. Vinny’s. We’re both very proud of where we came from.”

Those early influences haven’t faded over time. Her friends say the Superior Court assignment judge in Mercer County remains devoted to her faith, sending her children to Catholic universities.

And so it would appear Jacobson’s decision last month giving same-sex couples the right to marry would place her at odds with the position taken by her church, which opposes such unions. It has also roiled New Jersey courts and politics right up through Friday afternoon, when the state Supreme Court agreed to take the case.

Longtime friends and colleagues, while shying away from any discussion of the judge’s religious leanings, say she’s proved adept at separating the personal from the professional.

To her, they say, the high-pitched debate going on beyond the walls of her courtroom, with Gov. Chris Christie saying voters — not judges — ought to decide whether the state should approve same-sex marriage, is just background noise.

“The only thing that would play into her decisions would be the law, the facts and the application of the facts to the law,” said Kenneth Levy, a retired Superior Court judge in Essex County who has known Jacobson since their days in the state attorney general’s office.

“Judges are human beings,” Levy added. “But if you’re going to be a good judge, you have to divorce yourself from your personal biases and your personal religious beliefs to the extent that that’s possible. To me she’s one of the best judges in the state. Professional. Totally unbiased.”

Newark civil liberties lawyer Bennet Zurofsky agrees.

“She’s not moved by emotional arguments,” Zurofsky said. “She’s moved by arguments firmly rooted in precedent or logically developed from precedent. She rules from the head, not the heart.”

Jacobson, 60, went on the bench in 2001 after her appointment by then-Gov. Christie Whitman. Jacobson worked as a judge in the general equity division in Superior Court in Essex County before moving to Mercer County, where she served as presiding judge of the family division in 2009 and 2010.

Lawyers say she seldom tips her hand.

During oral arguments in the same-sex marriage case, attorney Lawrence Lustberg, who represented the six couples challenging the state, was peppered with tough questions by Jacobson, leaving him to wonder whether he’d lost. At one point, she asked him whether he thought the courts were, indeed, the right place to resolve the issue.

“Many judges and justices on a state and federal level say on such far-reaching matters, such as same-sex marriage, it ought to be decided by the political process rather than by the courts,” Jacobson said as she questioned Lustberg.

Christie has vetoed efforts by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature to pass a bill allowing same-sex marriage in New Jersey. So far Democrats have been unable to put together a two-thirds majority in the Senate and Assembly to override the governor’s veto.

Lustberg says colleagues feared that the judge’s questioning meant they were doomed. He cautioned them that Jacobson had a track record of listening to both sides.

“She’s the epitome of what a judge should be,” Lustberg said. “She’s confident, thorough, scholarly. But beyond that, she’s fair. She’s going to call it the way she sees it.”

Jacobson has refused to delay her decision beyond Oct. 21, the first day she said same-sex marriages could take place in New Jersey. The state’s top court agreed to hear an appeal of Jacobson’s ruling in January. The court will also decide whether to delay Jacobson’s ruling beyond Oct. 21 until it makes a ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

In court papers, the attorney general’s office repeated its assertion that the state Supreme Court, not Jacobson alone, should be deciding such a landmark issue.

“It is in the public interest that such a profound change, if it is to occur, take place not because a single judge — no matter how diligent, thoughtful, and thorough — ordered it, but rather because the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter, has deemed it necessary,” the office said.

Jacobson’s ruling last month placed much significance on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from June that extended federal benefits to married gay couples. By only allowing civil unions, New Jersey was denying these couples the same benefits, she ruled.

(Thomas Zambito writes for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey.)