By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled sympathy on Tuesday toward two associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who are seeking to have their convictions in the "Bridgegate" scandal overturned in a case focusing on what kinds of political acts can be prosecuted as criminal fraud.
Several justices - liberals and conservatives - appeared dissatisfied during arguments in the case with the U.S. Justice Department's reasoning in defending the prosecutions of Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, although they asked tough question of both sides.
The scandal centered on Christie's team engineering traffic chaos on the world's busiest bridge to punish a local mayor who refused to endorse his gubernatorial re-election bid.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 upheld the 2016 convictions of Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for wire fraud and misusing Port Authority resources.
At issue in their appeals is whether their actions fit the definition of fraud under federal law.
Prosecutors accused Kelly and Baroni of creating days of lane closures in September 2013 on the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City.
The closures caused traffic gridlock and were intended to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, after he declined to endorse the Republican Christie for re-election, prosecutors said. The traffic was so bad, local authorities warned at the time that it was a threat to public safety by delaying emergency responders.
Christie denied involvement and was not charged. The scandal marred Christie's reputation, damaged his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and contributed to low public approval ratings in his home state.
PAINTING THE MAYOR'S HOUSE
The justices wrestled with whether changing a bridge's traffic lane patterns was akin to other types of government misconduct, citing examples like a mayor asking public employees to paint his house or snow plow his street before others.
"Now, that is not a good thing to do. It is really undesirable. And maybe it should be a crime. But 30 years in prison? That I'm not sure," said liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, referring to the maximum available sentence for fraud.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts noted that although the lane-meddling created traffic problems, the public could still use the bridge.
"If people want to use the highway to get to Fort Lee, they can," Roberts said.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan said that although government employees were commandeered as part of the scheme, their role was incidental.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, a New Jersey native and former federal prosecutor in the state, was among those tough on the prosecution, although he also appeared dissatisfied at what Kelly and Baroni's lawyers argued.
Christie, Kelly and Baroni all attended the arguments.
A ruling in favor of Kelly and Baroni could make it harder to prosecute public officials for certain political acts. The Supreme Court in 2016 threw out former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's bribery conviction in a ruling that narrowed the types of conduct that can warrant such prosecution.
McDonnell and former media mogul Conrad Black, who also was prosecuted in a corruption case, filed legal briefs in support of Kelly and Baroni. President Donald Trump last year granted a full pardon to Black, who was convicted in 2007 of fraud and obstruction of justice and spent 3-1/2 years in prison.
After dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination, Christie threw his support behind Trump and served as an adviser, but Trump later fired him as the head of his transition team after being elected president.
Baroni initially started serving an 18-month prison sentence but was released after the Supreme Court agreed last year to hear the case. Kelly's 13-month sentence was put on hold while she appealed.
Kelly told Port Authority executive David Wildstein in an August 2013 email that it was "[t]ime for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," and they helped invent a sham "traffic study" to justify the lane closures. Wildstein, the accused Bridgegate mastermind, was sentenced to probation in 2017 after pleading guilty and cooperating with prosecutors.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)