The Land’s Highest Court Wades into Bridgegate

Kelly outside the Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON – Bridget Kelly stood in the rain and said she was honored that her case – a case about a traffic jam in New Jersey – had made it all the way to the majestic setting of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When it was Bill Baroni’s time to speak to reporters outside the court as the rain began to fall harder, he said simply, “Now we wait.”

Indeed.

The highest court in the land spent a little more than an hour Tuesday morning hearing arguments on the “Bridgegate” scandal. Decisions are typically announced in June, so the wait for Kelly, Baroni and everyone else interested in this crazy slice of New Jersey politics will be about five months.

This is all about a traffic jam, but not really.

The legal argument before the court by the government was that the scheme diverted resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from their genuine purpose.

Eric Feigin, who argued the case for the government, said defendants Baroni and Kelly, both of whom are appealing convictions, committed fraud by telling a lie. And that was that closing two of three lanes on the George Washington bridge to local traffic from Fort Lee was because of a traffic study.

Lawyer Jacob Roth argued the case for Kelly and insisted that his client, and for that matter, Baroni as well, were guilty of nothing.  Among other things, he contended that the pair had gotten no material benefit from their actions. In other words, no bribes or kickbacks were involved.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke up, noting that the defendants had gained a private, political benefit from the bridge scheme, which took place in September, 2013.

Roth replied there was nothing private at all, noting that other lanes to the bridge remained open to the public.

This prompted a lively discussion about politicians abusing their power in various ways.

Justice Elena Kagan brought up a mayor who orders the DPW to plow his street first.

Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that was wrong – a misuse of resources, but then he added facetiously:

“But 30 years in prison, I’m not sure.”

In truth, Baroni and Kelly were sentenced to 18 and 13 months respectively. Baroni already has served part of his term.

This legal principle is key.

The court previously has more tightly drawn the criteria for finding public officials guilty of corruption. In short, the court has accepted the logic that even unsavory political decisions are not crimes if there is no tangible or monetary  benefit to the actors.

But that brings us to a critical question.

Is a political benefit – or even a desired political benefit – tangible enough to merit, or in this case, support a conviction?

In contrast to the “snow plow” argument, Kagan observed that the real intent here was not to hijack Port Authority resources, but to create a traffic jam in Fort Lee.

Others agreed.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed, “I think the scheme was to make life difficult for Fort Lee.”

And Chief Justice John Roberts himself displayed a fine understanding of New Jersey politics.

It was, he said, all about hurting Fort Lee.

“If they could have done it some other way, they would have,” Roberts said.

We now know that the reason for all this was to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Chris Christie’s re-election.

While Christie hovers over this case, it was still surprising that he was in the audience.

And why was he sitting in front of Kelly?

Christie was not immediately available for comment afterwards. Kelly seemed to suggest it wasn’t a big deal. She said they did not speak and that’s just the way they were seated. Ushers generally tell people where to sit in the Supreme Court.

But if one coincidence is not enough, it also surfaced that Christie and Kelly traveled Monday to Washington on the same train.

Asked what she’s doing now, Kelly said only that she’s the mother of four children.

Just about every time the court holds a hearing, observes try to see where it is headed from questions asked by the justices.

That often proves to be a fruitless endeavor. No one really knows.

Baroni got it right. Waiting is the only thing to do now.

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