WASHINGTON — United States Supreme Court justices on both the court's conservative and liberal wings today signaled that they harbored major questions about the validity of the federal convictions of two close aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Bridgegate case.
Christie, in a surprise move, was present for arguments before the nation's highest court, listening with his wife, Mary Pat. Afterward, he left quietly and did not comment.
In an hour-long session, justices spelled out a variety of concerns that prosecutors may have misused federal fraud laws to convict Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority deputy director William Baroni, for their roles in the traffic-as-political-payback case that upended former Christie's presidential ambitions and opened a window on New Jersey's brass-knuckle politics.
"What is it?" asked Associate Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court's liberal members, at one point, summarizing what seemed to be a common question among the justices on how to look at the legal complexities of the Bridgegate case.
The gridlock across Fort Lee's narrow streets leading to the George Washington Bridge during portions of five days in September 2013 that became known as the Bridgegate plot was meant to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his refusal to endorse the re-election of Christie, a Republican.
Read the transcript below. If you cannot see the document, you can read it here.
The plan backfired, however. After the public learned of the cutthroat politics behind the traffic jams, Christie's popularity fell and his plan to run for president in 2016 crumbled.
Did prosecutors over-reach?
While politics seemed on the minds of many in the court on Tuesday, including the justices, the arguments centered on legal fine points — namely whether any federal laws were violated even though the Bridgegate scheme came to be viewed as a colossal abuse of political power.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, part of the court's liberal contingent, described Fort Lee's traffic nightmare in September 2013 as "quite a problem." But, like other justices, Breyer indicated that he was having a difficult time figuring what federal law could be applied to the case.
He was not alone.
"When we write the opinion, if we were to write one in your favor, how would we explain your result with the language of the statute?" Associate Justice Samuel Alito, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey and a member of the court's conservative wing, asked in a series of pointed questions of Kelly's attorney, Yaakov Roth.
Roth did not offer too many hints — other than to say he thought the convictions of Kelly and Baroni should be reversed because prosecutors overstepped federal fraud laws. But in his opening remarks to the justices Roth pointed to a legal issue at the center of his appeal — and one that appears to be a chief concern to the justices.
"Once again," Roth said, "the government is trying to use the open-ended federal fraud statutes to enforce honest government at the state and local levels."
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In recent years, the court has struck down a series of federal convictions of political officials, ruling that zealous prosecutors overstepped their bounds. Many legal observers feel that the Bridgegate case may be another instance in which the court — sometimes with liberals and conservatives joining forces — could impose even more limits on federal prosecutions of corruption and other wrongs by public officials.
Roth added later that upholding the verdicts against Kelly and Baroni would have a "chilling on honest public servants" because it would open the door for federal prosecutors to charge them with crimes if they made questionable decisions based on political motives.
Merely raising questions about the case is not necessarily a sign of how any Supreme Court justice might rule. But the significance of liberal and conservative justices targeting similar issues in the Bridgegate case was hard to ignore.
Besides Associate Justices Kagan, Breyer and Alito, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another member of the liberal contingent, and Chief Justice John Roberts, among the court's conservatives but sometimes its swing vote, pointedly challenged assumptions by both sides.
In an exchange with U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin, who spoke on behalf of the prosecution, Roberts conceded that the Bridgegate traffic scheme may have been a misuse of public resources. But Roberts also noted — as did other justices — that those resources were not geared to private use by Kelly or Baroni that would have made them fraudulent.
"They're still being used for public purposes," Roberts said of the decision to create traffic tie-ups by closing two of three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.
"I'm sorry," said Sotomayor in beginning a series of questions, "I thought the scheme was to make life difficult for Fort Lee."
It was one of several references to the crowded borough atop the Palisades that was thrust into the national political spotlight when the Bridgegate revelations surfaced. Some justices wondered about the chain of command in the Port Authority — and, in particular, who had the authority to approve of a lane realignment that would cause such massive traffic jams.
"This is a bi-state agency," Alito said of the Port Authority, which is led by political appointees from New York and New Jersey. "Why? Why would New Jersey agree to an arrangement like that?"
That question was not answered. It may never be. But it nevertheless illustrates how complicated the Bridgegate affair became.
Kelly, Baroni speak
Speaking outside on the steps of the Supreme Court building in a light rain, Kelly, whose "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email in August 2013 launched the Bridgegate scheme, said "today is about hope and justice."
Kelly said she was surprised to see Christie but did not speak to him inside the Supreme Court. On Monday, Christie rode the same Amtrak train as Kelly and her lawyers from New Jersey to Washington. But Kelly said she and Christie did not speak to each other.
"I'm glad he's paying attention," Kelly said of Christie's decision to come to Washington for the Bridgegate arguments.
"It's been a long six years," she added, referring to her firing from her deputy chief of staff post by Christie. "I hope he has a harder time seeing me than I have seeing him."
Baroni declined to comment after the hearing on Christie's presence, but he said he was hopeful that his conviction would be overturned based on what he heard from the justice.
"There's a clear difference between politics and a crime," said Michael Levy, Baroni's lawyer.
Attorneys for Kelly and Baroni had 30 minutes to make their case that their federal fraud and conspiracy convictions in the Bridgegate scandal should be thrown out.
Lawyers from the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office, who represented federal prosecutors in the case, also had a half-hour to argue that those convictions should stand.
Kelly, 47 of Ramsey, N.J., and Baroni, 48, of Manhattan, were each found guilty in November 2016 of fraud, conspiracy and civil rights violations for their roles in orchestrating the crippling traffic jams on roads leading to the George Washington Bridge. A federal appeals panel threw out the civil rights convictions, leaving the Supreme Court to rule on fraud and conspiracy.
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Kelly was sentenced to 13 months in prison. A single mother of four, she has been allowed to remain free on bail while awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling, probably sometime this spring.
Baroni began his 18-month jail sentence last spring but was released on bail in early July after the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case.
If the Supreme Court rules against them, both will likely head to prison.
Popular among New Jersey voters and viewed as a powerful new voice in the Republican Party, Christie saw his governorship — and re-election in 2013 — as a springboard for a run for the presidency in 2016. But the uproar over the traffic scheme — first disclosed by NorthJersey.com — quashed Christie’s White House bid and caused his popularity with New Jersey voters to plummet.
Christie was not charged in the Bridgegate plot. He has denied knowing about the plan ahead of time or as it was unfolding. But Kelly and Baroni both testified during the six-week trial in Newark that Christie knew of the traffic scheme.
Kelly and Baroni have long claimed that they were scapegoated for their role in the Bridgegate affair. Both say they were drawn into the scheme by David Wildstein, a Port Authority executive and renowned political dirty trickster who cut a deal with prosecutors and testified against them.
Kelly and Baroni also claim that federal prosecutors should have targeted Christie and high ranking officials in his administration.
Wildstein, 58, who pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges and escaped prison by testifying against Baroni and Kelly, has declined to comment on the case.
Kelly said she hopes to be vindicated.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting for the truth to be told,” she said. “I want my life back. I want my kids to have their lives back.”
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Bridgegate: Chris Christie attends Supreme Court hears argument