Several Supreme Court justices appeared sympathetic Tuesday to the arguments of former political aides convicted in relation to “Bridgegate” — the George Washington Bridge traffic jam and political scandal that rocked the administration of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Bridget Anne Kelly, who served as an aide to Christie, was charged with using Port Authority resources to close several lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, causing severe traffic issues as an act of political retribution. The scheme imposed crippling grid lock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and came after Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor had refused to endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection bid.
Kelly and Bill Baroni, the deputy director of the Port Authority, were convicted for their roles and ultimately sentenced to 13 and 18 months of imprisonment, respectively. They are currently out on bond and they want the Supreme Court to reverse their convictions.
Referring to Baroni, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that he did have the authority “to regulate how lanes are used on the highway and say these are going to be used for Fort Lee, these aren’t.”
Justice Elena Kagan noted that while the two were convicted for property fraud the object of the scheme was not to obtain property, but to create a traffic jam and to “benefit people politically.”
Christie, who was never implicated in the scandal, was in the audience Tuesday to hear the 60 minutes of arguments.
The very fact that the court agreed to take up the case after the aides had lost in the lower courts suggests at least some justices were troubled by the breadth of the fraud prosecutions brought against the aides.
The case exploring the intersection of politics and crime comes as the justices have narrowed in past cases what kind of conduct can be considered fraud.
“One of the trends in the Roberts Court has been to adopt ever-narrower constructions of criminal statutes, especially in the white-collar context,” said Steve Vladeck of University of Texas School of Law and a CNN contributor. “Whether motivated by substantive concerns about the breadth of federal criminal law or by concerns about politically minded prosecutions, the result has been to make it harder for prosecutors to bring these kinds of cases.”
Lawyers for the aides told the justices that the government overreached when it charged them under various federal fraud statutes.
At trial, Kelly and Baroni testified that the lanes were closed so that officials could conduct a traffic study. But emails and text messages released in January 2014 included allegations that the real effort was to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in one text.
Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin told the justices that Kelly and Baroni lied when they said that the lane closures were for a traffic study and instead commandeered Port Authority property and “unwitting” personnel to conceal their “true punitive purpose.”
“Lying about the existence of a traffic study in order to obtain the Port Authority’s resources is fraud,” Feigin told the justices.
“They don’t get a free pass because their motive happened to be political,” Feigin added.
But lawyers for Kelly and Baroni say the government went too far. They argued that while the aides were convicted for property fraud, they never took bribes or kickbacks, but instead were pursuing political motives.
Jacob Roth, a lawyer for Kelly, told the justices that he wasn’t suggesting the scheme was “OK” but that the remedy was not a federal property fraud conviction. He said the actions could be subject to political repercussions or New Jersey state laws, but not the federal statute that was used against his client. He said the lower court opinions against his client would produce a “sweeping expansion of federal jurisdiction.”
“In an ideal world, public officials would always act solely in the best interest of the public,” Roth argued. “But our world is decidedly not ideal, and politics is one of its inherent features, accepted as the cost of democratic accountability.”
In briefs, Roth pointed to a case from 2016 when the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell, once a rising star in Republican politics, was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2014. He was found guilty of violating the law when he received, gifts, money and loans from Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO of a Virginia-based company, in exchange for official acts seen as favorable to Williams and his business.
But in throwing out the conviction. Roberts said that while McDonnell’s actions were “distasteful” the government went too far.
“Our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” he wrote.
A decision is expected by June.