Attorneys engaged in litigation aimed at winning same-sex marriage rights in New York State unanimously praised the ruling by New Paltz Town Justice Jonathan D. Katz that found the state’s Domestic Relations Law unconstitutional on the basis that it denies lesbian and gay couples marriage rights.

Katz made the ruling in a criminal case in which Jason West, the New Paltz mayor, faced misdemeanor charges brought by Ulster County prosecutor Donald Williams for solemnizing 25 same-sex marriages of couples who did not have marriage licenses.

In defending West, his attorney, E. Joshua Rosenkrantz, challenged the constitutionality of the law and neither Williams nor state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer defended it on that basis. Katz concluded, therefore, that no rationale basis for excluding gay and lesbian couples had been offered into evidence.

Even as legal advocates applauded Katz’s ruling, they could not definitely predict its impact on the course of the same-sex movement in New York State.

“Judge Katz may have ditched some of the mumbo jumbo legal analysis, but he applied common sense, and it’s a good approach,” said James Esseks, litigation director at the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Esseks noted that a ruling by a New Paltz judge imposes no formal precedent on judges elsewhere in the state, but he argued that, taken together with other pro-gay and pro-marriage rulings in the U.S. and Canada during the past year, “there is a certain amount of momentum” that he believes makes same-sex marriage inevitable in New York. He also said that judges hearing several civil lawsuits seeking same-sex marriage rights across the state, “will take notice of Judge Katz’s decision.”

Susan Sommer, the Lambda Legal attorney overseeing that group’s lawsuit against New York City for denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, said, “I think it is a very encouraging, great sign that when a court starts to looks at whether it is constitutional to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, that there is really no legitimate, rational reason for the government to fence out gay people. We are glad that in that criminal context the court saw through the issue to the basic unfairness of a regime that fences out same-sex couples.”

Sommer argued that the Katz ruling creates “a great precedent to point to,” though she predicted that “it is in the arena of a civil case like ours that the issue will ultimately be decided.”

Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is currently litigating a civil case on behalf of ten gay and lesbian couples in upstate Nyack, said, “I am very pleased. It was a gutsy, clever, courageous, and historic decision.”

Siegel added that he was “very surprised at how little coverage” the ruling got, suggesting that some other legal advocates had chosen to “lowball” the significance of Katz’s action. He said when he heard such speculation at a conference this week, he decided to make the Katz decision the centerpiece of his remarks to the gathering.

“When a judge sticks his neck and writes a gutsy decision, I think he should be applauded,” Siegel said.

Neither Sommer nor Esseks agreed with Siegel’s assessment that Katz’s ruling had been minimized by advocates.

“It’s news to me,” Esseks said.

Esseks also addressed the concern that Katz’s reference to federal constitutional protections was at odds with the consensus of marriage advocates that they should instead rely on New York State constitutional provisions, so as not to draw the potentially hostile U.S. Supreme Court into the fray.

“As long as the ruling talked about on both the state and federal constitutions, that would keep it in the state courts,” he said.

Applauding Katz for arriving at his ruling “elegantly and confidently,” West’s attorney Rosenkrantz predicted it would be “a harbinger of things to come in New York.”

Rosenkrantz said he will use the ruling to challenge a civil injunction against West performing any more marriage ceremonies in New Paltz.

–Paul Schindler

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