As couples across New Jersey began marrying Monday after the stroke of midnight, Gov. Chris Christie abandoned his long fight against same-sex marriage, concluding that signals from the court and the march of history were against him.
His decision not to appeal a judge's ruling that allowed the weddings removed the last hurdle to legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, making it the 14th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow gay couples to wed.
Mr. Christie's advisers said it had become clear late Friday that the fight had to end after the state Supreme Court announced that it would not grant the governor's request to block same-sex marriages while he appealed. Not only did the court decision say his appeal had no "reasonable probability of success," it was also unanimous -- signed by the justices whom Mr. Christie has long warred against and by the one he considered on "his" side, Justice Anne M. Patterson.
The governor concluded that, legally, he was out of arguments, and that it would be what one aide called a "fool's errand" to continue in the face of almost-certain failure.
Politically, his staff members bet they could contain the damage by arguing that the governor had never changed his mind -- he still opposes same-sex marriage -- and blaming activist judges, which even critics of the governor's decision began doing Monday.
"He looks realistic, while sticking to his principles -- and people are happy," said one adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss strategy.
Mr. 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 important primary states. Last year, he vetoed legislation allowing same-sex marriage, saying voters should decide the issue in a referendum. As recently as last week, he repeated his position that he believed marriage to be between a man and a woman. But he also signed a bill outlawing so-called gay conversion therapy, which angered conservatives.
Even if he lost on the marriage issue, his aides said, Mr. Christie could still promote himself as the kind of politician voters embrace because they know where he stands, even if they do not agree with him.
New Jersey's dizzying events showed how quickly the politics of same-sex marriage have changed. Starting at midnight and into early Monday, same-sex couples from Asbury Park to Jersey City wed in emotional ceremonies that had been hastily arranged after the court denied Mr. Christie's request for a delay.
At 8:30 a.m., lawyers representing the couples who had sued to be allowed to marry received calls from the administration, telling them that the governor had dropped his appeal. In a conference call later, lawyers for Lambda Legal said they expected to prevail with similar litigation in Nevada, Virginia and West Virginia, and that they were optimistic about their chances in the legislatures in Hawaii and Illinois.
"I think the handwriting was on the wall as clearly as it could possibly be," said Lawrence S. Lustberg, a lawyer who argued the case for gay and lesbian couples before the New Jersey Supreme Court. "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."