WASHINGTON—The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to uphold the convictions of the two former New Jersey political operatives who orchestrated the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal—the “Bridgegate” traffic-congestion scandal of 2013—but the justices didn’t seem to have been moved.
Justices wondered why the prosecution had been brought, in what they indicated was a confusing case in which no money or property was traded for political favors.
Like several of the justices, Justice Stephen Breyer expressed confusion about the government’s theory of the public corruption case during oral arguments on Jan. 14.
“I don’t see how this case works,” Breyer told Deputy Solicitor General Eric J. Feigin.
The two individuals are Bridget Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Prosecutors say the plan was devised by David Wildstein, a Port Authority political appointee and Baroni’s de facto chief of staff. Wildstein became a witness for the prosecution.
Christie, a high-profile ally of candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election, attended the oral arguments in person at the Supreme Court. He was never charged in connection with Bridgegate, and denied knowing about the plan.
The government contends that Kelly and Baroni committed fraud as they conspired to close two of three local access lanes leading to the toll plaza of the frequently congested George Washington Bridge in a political payback scheme.
The George Washington Bridge is a double-decked suspension bridge spanning the Hudson River that connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, and New York City. Run by the Port Authority, it’s said to be the busiest motor vehicle bridge in the world.
The plan is said to have unfolded over four days in September 2013 and was designed to inundate Fort Lee with traffic after its Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, chose not to endorse Christie’s reelection effort. Kelly and Baroni allegedly plotted to gridlock Fort Lee as political payback for Sokolich.
“Kelly and Baroni lied about a traffic study in order to hijack Port Authority resources to gridlock a town, cause maximal harm to its residents, and endanger public safety,” according to the government’s brief. “That was both outside their authority and repugnant to the goals of safe and efficient transportation.”
Attorneys for the two claim they were engaged in routine “bare-knuckle” political behavior, not criminal activity.
“The alleged conduct here was petty, insensitive, and ill-advised. But in our system, political abuses of power are addressed politically,” they wrote in a brief.
If the convictions are upheld, “I think the chilling effect on honest public servants is going to be severe,” Kelly’s attorney, Jacob M. Roth, told the Supreme Court during the hearing.
The justices questioned whether what Kelly and Baroni did was actually a crime and seemed skeptical of the government’s argument that it had been defrauded of its “property” when the two local access lanes to the bridge were closed.
Chief Justice John Roberts said to Feigin, “Your theory is that by the actions in this case, they have commandeered the lanes on the expressway?”
“Yes … they commandeered the lanes and the resources necessary to reallocate,” Feigin said.
Roberts replied, “They’re still being used for public purposes. … Because if other people want to use the highway to get to Fort Lee, they can. They have nothing to do with the scheme at all.”
Justice Elena Kagan also pushed back. “It’s not appropriating the George Washington Bridge, it’s reallocating lanes on the George Washington Bridge.”
Justice Samuel Alito suggested even if the accused persons employed deceit, that didn’t mean they were acting outside their authority.
“Isn’t it often the case that somebody who has the authority to do something may lie about why the person is doing the thing because, if the real reason was exposed, it would cause a furor, people would be angry?”
He added, “But that doesn’t show the person doesn’t have the authority to do it.”
The case is cited as Kelly v. U.S. It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will hand down its decision.