Chris Christie | AP | AP Photo WASHINGTON — Most of the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism Tuesday about the federal government’s case in the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal, several of them peppering a Justice Department lawyer with questions as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie watched from the front row. A number of…
WASHINGTON — Most of the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism Tuesday about the federal government’s case in the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal, several of them peppering a Justice Department lawyer with questions as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie watched from the front row.
A number of the justices, weighing some dense legal issues that surround the convictions of two former Christie allies, seemed to find merit in the defendants‘ arguments that they did not defraud the government of its “property” by closing off two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.
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“I don’t see how this case works,” Justice Stephen Breyer, a member of the court’s liberal wing, said at one point during the hourlong hearing. Breyer said that what happened was bad — and maybe even a crime — but doubted the statutes involved in the case were properly applied.
Other liberal and conservative justices also seemed to struggle with the arguments made by the Justice Department, whose defense of the case rested on the idea that no one involved in the political retribution scheme had the “authority” to realign the lanes at the bridge. Because they didn’t have the authority, the government said, the defendants lied — they claimed to be doing a “traffic study” — in order to take control of the costly resources needed to execute their political punishment scheme.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan all asked numerous, sharp-edged questions about those arguments, while Kavanaugh and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg each asked at least one tough question of the government.
Lawyers for the defendants appealing their convictions — Bridget Anne Kelly, who was Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, who was deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — also faced some tough questions about their arguments, but not as many as the government.
Baroni, a former Republican state lawmaker in New Jersey, and Kelly, who was a longtime legislative aide before joining Christie’s office, were convicted in 2016 for their roles in the scandal. They worked with a third conspirator — David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official who pleaded guilty and testified against them — to orchestrate the political retribution scheme.
Over the course of several days in September 2013, the three closed off two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge during the morning commute, clogging roads for hours in the densely populated Bergen County, N.J., town of Fort Lee. Wildstein, who received probation and now runs a political news site in New Jersey, said the stunt was designed to punish Fort Lee‘s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia upheld the convictions, though it tossed out one count involving violations of civil rights.
This appeal — which the Supreme Court agreed to hear after Baroni had already reported to federal prison, and as Kelly was preparing to do so — could lead to the revocation of yet another tool federal prosecutors use to go after perceived corruption.
It follows the high court’s 2016 ruling overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on the grounds prosecutors had wrongly mixed evidence of potentially illegal acts aimed at influencing official government actions with proof of routine courtesies.
In this latest case, Kelly and Baroni say a ruling in favor of the government would criminalize “routine” politics. They say what they did, no matter how sinister it seemed, “is a case of bare-knuckle New Jersey politics, not graft.”
Their arguments are twofold: They say the decision to change the traffic patterns at the bridge was a government process and therefore they didn’t defraud the government of its “property,” as they were convicted of doing. And they argue that Baroni did, in fact, have the authority to change the lanes in his role as deputy executive director of the Port Authority.
“Once again, the government is trying to use the open-ended federal fraud statutes to enforce honest government at the state and local level,” attorney Yaakov Roth told the court in his opening remark, invoking the court’s 2016 ruling that vacated the McDonnell conviction.
Roth said the legal theory applied to the case “turns the integrity of every official action at every level of government into a potential federal fraud investigation.”
Eric Feigin, a deputy solicitor general, said that isn’t true because the defendants didn’t have the power to change the lanes in the first place.
“Unless they lied about the existence of a Port Authority traffic study, none of them had the power to direct those resources and realign the lanes,” Feigin said. “Because they told that lie, those resources were answering to them, to their own private purposes rather than to the public officials who were duly appointed to decide what those resources should be allocated to do.”
Some of the justices did not seem convinced.
They debated the difference between the lane closures and a range of hypotheticals, such a decision by a local official to plow the mayor’s street before others. And they seemed to grapple with figuring out what the “object” of the scheme was: to take the Port Authority’s “property” or to cause traffic problems.
“I’m sorry, I thought the scheme was to make life difficult for Fort Lee,” Kagan said to Feigin during one exchange. “If that was the scheme, and you defrauded the use of government property to accomplish your goal, why is that any different than taking the maintenance worker to plow your road, your private street?”
The arguments before the justices attracted Christie, who had never before attended a court proceeding in the case. The former governor and U.S. Attorney, who is now a lawyer in private practice, sat in the front row of the visitors section, next to his wife and directly in front of Kelly and her trial lawyer, Michael Critchley.
Kelly, who also ended up on the same train to Washington as Christie on Monday, said after the arguments that she was not surprised her former boss showed up. She said they did not exchange any words and neither seemed to acknowledge the other, with Christie chatting with his wife before the proceeding began.
“It’s been a long six years. I hope he had a harder time seeing me than I had seeing him,” she said.
Kelly noted the time since the scandal broke when her now infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email was leaked to the press. She said she’s spent much of the time “filled with much uncertainty, confusion, anger and sadness.”
“Much is yet to be determined, but today is about hope and justice,” she said, standing in front of the courthouse. “I remain optimistic that both will triumph and our lives can return to normal.”
Christie, who has said he had nothing to do with the plot, left the court without speaking to the press.
Baroni, speaking to reporters after Kelly, noted the justices will decide “whether or not I go back to prison.”
“Now we wait,” he said. “I wait with patience and I wait with humility and I wait in joyful hope for some justice.”
A decision in the case is expected in the spring or early summer.