In Focus: The Supreme Court Decision in the Bridget Kelly Bridgegate Case

Carl Golden, senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, argues that the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the appeal of Bridget Anne Kelly of her conviction in the Bridgegate scandal will be one of the most closely watched judicial proceedings in years.

The U. S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the appeal of Bridget Anne Kelly of her conviction in the Bridgegate scandal will be one of the most closely watch judicial proceedings in years, first because her freedom hangs in the balance and second because it may — at last — provide some clear guidance on when the actions of public officials cease being political punishment and cross into criminality.

Kelly, once a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, was convicted in 2016 along with Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, of fraud and civil rights violations for their roles in re-directing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in 2013 creating a massive four-day traffic jam as retribution against the town’s  Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election.

They conspired with David Wildstein, at the time director of capital projects at the Port Authority, to carry out the re-alignment under the guise of an Authority-sanctioned traffic study.  Wildstein struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify against the other two in return for probation.

Kelly has pursued her appeal while Baroni dropped his and is currently serving an 18-month sentence in a Federal prison.  Baroni yesterday filed a motion to be released on bail pending the outcome of Kelly’s appeal.

Their attorneys argued that their involvement in the plot to create the traffic tie-up did not constitute a Federal crime, but, rather, was an act of political retribution.  Criminalizing such behavior would, they contended, place in serious legal jeopardy any public official whose conduct was designed to deliver a political message even though the message was disguised as advancing a public purpose.

While the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Kelly’s appeal was unexpected and came as a surprise, some observers interpreted the court’s willingness to involve itself as an attempt to draw a bright line between political behavior — no matter how egregious — and acts of public corruption punishable by law.   Kelly, under that interpretation, would benefit.

Others took it further, suggesting that the court’s acceptance of the case indicates some sympathy for overturning her conviction.  It would have been a simple matter, they argue, for the court to decline to hear it, quietly ending the matter without controversy.

Why take on a case, they ask, if the court did not feel it presented legitimate questions involving the limits of political conduct and whether such activities should be considered common practice rather than illegal conduct.

Christie quickly seized the opportunity to criticize the U. S. Attorney’s office, characterizing the trial as a vindictive political prosecution concocted in part to damage him and that no crime was committed.

His comments were a far cry from the humiliation he heaped on Kelly when the scandal erupted publicly in 2014, calling her stupid, deceitful, and a liar who had betrayed him.

A self-serving report issued by a law firm commissioned by Christie suggested that Kelly was emotionally distraught over an affair of the heart, a gratuitous accusation designed to question her stability and inflict personal embarrassment on her.

He insisted — and continues to insist — he was unaware of the lane re-alignment plot, even though testimony at the trial contradicted his claim.  While his explanation was accepted by some and doubted by many, he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, the scandal inflicted serious damage on his Administration, sent his public approval rating into steep decline and, according to many, destroyed his long shot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

There is no doubt that whatever else its impact, the scandal forever stained his Administration.

In a broader sense and without applying it specifically to the Bridgegate scandal, political payback not only has a long and often colorful history, but ranges in severity from the petty and mundane to the more personally damaging.

Decisions to direct state funds to certain counties or municipalities are often reached with some level of political considerations in mind, as are appointments to government positions, prominent or entry-level.

Does, for instance, withholding money to finance the re-paving of a local highway because the mayor has been critical of the Administration rise to the level of criminality?

Or, does rejecting an application for a  government position because the applicant was supported by a legislator who stood in opposition to the Administration warrant prosecution?

Politics, by definition, is an integral part of the governmental decision-making process, accepted as such and practiced routinely.  Gray areas exist, to be sure, and it is the reckless politician who risks a great deal by venturing into them.

The rules may be unwritten, but they are understood by all.  Limits are self-imposed and self-governed; boundaries are drawn, and risks are clearly defined.

It is indisputable that the lane alignment scheme was perhaps the most harebrained exercise of political power in the state’s history, displaying an arrogance and abuse of authority that was staggering.

Kelly and Baroni were caught up in it and it is to their discredit that any misgivings they felt were kept to themselves.

It was a situation that cried out for someone to stand up and point out the lunacy of the entire enterprise and warn that when it was uncovered — as it surely would have been at some point — everyone involved would pay a price.

While Kelly’s appeal has reached the highest court in the land, the damage to her and Baroni is irreversible.  He’s a convicted felon in jail, she’s still in danger of imprisonment, and her reputation has been besmirched to a point where any possibility of public employment is out of the question.

For her, there remains hope of vindication by the Supreme Court and for others a hope for a final and unambiguous declaration of when political activity slams into prison walls.

Should Kelly prevail, she is entitled to a celebratory gathering, and a raising of glasses in a toast to the judicial system.  Chris Christie won’t be there to join in.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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  • Nick_Lento

    The definition of terrorism is using violence and the disruption of normal life as a political weapon. If Al Qaeda had disrupted the flow of traffic over the George Washington Bridge to punish Americans the people culpable would have been in jail awaiting trial and being charged with terrorism. Arguably at least one person that we know of may have died as a result of the delay in EMS to get to her. https://www.nj.com/politics/2014/01/fort_lee_woman_died_as_gwb_closures_delayed_medical_help.html

    If this SCOTUS allows Kelly and Baroni to walk based on the new legal theory that anything goes in the pursuit of political revenge and intimidation,

    The fact that Christie got off should be an indication that the fix was/is in.

    • robert

      well I’m glad im not the only one who read this article and immediately concluded that the Supreme Court is about to make the concept of one law for the rich and powerful and another one for the REST of us, an actual LAW. what this says is that if I don’t like my neighbor because of some he does or won’t do for me and I decide to step into my front yard and fire 10 rounds into his bedroom,(not knowing or caring if anyone was in it) as a citizen Im going straight to jail for attempted murder, but if a politician does the exact same thing, he wont even be CHARGED because (now) his lawyer will be able to point to a Supreme Court Ruling as prescedence and say you can’t touch me, I’m a politician and I was just “sending him a message!” Christi had NO WAY to know people weren’t going to die as a result of his little “message”, he just used his power to commit a terrorist act and didn’t give a shit who got hurt or killed. My reaction is that Trump and his swamp creatures have just legalized ANYTHING and EVERYTHING they want to do. Im not saying “if this gets passed” either because when Kelly told the press that “friends were looking into the possibility of a presidential pardon” -just WHO would a low level person like her know that could get to the presidents ear on this? CHRISTI that’s who, the guy he had picked for a running mate in 2016 until this little MESSAGE he sent got in the way. so what’s happening here is simple, 1. KELLY has some smart lawyers and the plan was simple. Your going to get in front of every camera you can find and SCREAM to Christi that your NEVER going to let him hear the end of this, its going to trail him until the end of days and thats a PROMISE Christi!! Your going to do this Kelly, and WE (your lawyers) are going to have a little meet with Christi and explain that if he ever wants to have a life again, he needs to get TRUMP to pardon you, or if Trump doesn’t like the way that would look then Trump can get his new buddy on the Supreme Court to take the case and rule that what Christi ordered Kelly to do wasn’t even a crime. -So you see the ruling is ALREADY in, or they wouldn’t even have take the case. the CRIME was clear as day, so they are just going to IGNORE THE CRIME completely and PRETEND that the MOTIVE was what she was convicted of! and since there is NO SUCH THING as a law against for punishment for a “Motive” well then OBVIOUSLY the conviction will have to be overturned and out Kelly walks with Baroni right behind her, Christi goes back to being a crooked politician and NOW all politicians EVERYWHERE are henceforth above the law forever and no lower court anywhere will be able to rule differently once the Supreme Court rules it so. Democrats think another 4 years of Trump will give him a mandate to do anything he likes and create a dictatorship? thats NOTHING, after this ruling any politician anywhere, and anytime will only have to say 3 words to get off any crime. ” I was sending a message” … a few years back Cops were granted the same immunity for murdering citizens they no longer had to prove the victim had attacked them, threatened their lives or even had a weapon, no all they had to say was ” I feared for my life” (so shot an unarmed man that was running away from me 5 times in the back). over the last decade weve SEEN the result of the “in fear for my life” ruling. Cops don’t even care if you VIDEOTAPE them murdering people, and very soon neither will politicains. “Yes your honor my client doesnt dispute the fact that he order 3 people killed, but they had dirt on him and he was just “sending a message” that its not wise to screw with him. -Just like CHRISTI and the Supreme Court already RULED on that. politicians CANT commit a crime, they are called MESSAGES now.

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