US Supreme Court hears 'Bridgegate' political retribution case

Charlotte PLANTIVE
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The US Supreme Court is to hear the 'Bridgegate' political dirty trick case

The US Supreme Court is to hear the 'Bridgegate' political dirty trick case (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case involving public officials who created a monster traffic jam to inflict political retribution.

Several justices on the nation's top court appeared to be sympathetic to the arguments made by lawyers for two New Jersey officials convicted of carrying out the political dirty trick.

The "Bridgegate" case dates back to 2013 when New Jersey's Republican governor Chris Christie was running for reelection and Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, declined to endorse him.

Aides to Christie were accused of deliberately causing gridlock on the George Washington Bridge leading from Fort Lee to New York City over the Hudson River as political score-settling against Sokolich.

Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 and 18 months in prison respectively.

Kelly and Baroni appealed their convictions, arguing that while their conduct may have been "petty, insensitive, and ill-advised," it was not criminal, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

On the first day of school in September, during the morning rush hour, two of the three lanes on the busy bridge out of Fort Lee were closed for a fictional "traffic study," backing up cars and trucks in New Jersey for hours.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in an email to another official in the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.

The traffic chaos lasted for four days, causing children to be late for school, commuters late for work and leaving emergency vehicles stuck in gridlocked traffic.

Christie, who was in the Supreme Court audience on Tuesday, claimed to have had no knowledge of the plan and fired Kelly but the scandal effectively torpedoed his White House ambitions.

Jacob Roth, a lawyer for Kelly, told the court that if the convictions were allowed to stand it "turns the integrity of every official action at every level of government into a potential federal fraud investigation."

"I'm not trying to suggest that this is okay," Roth said of Kelly's actions. "We don't want public officials acting for personal reasons. We don't want them acting necessarily for partisan or political reasons.

"But what I'm saying is the remedy for that is not the federal property fraud statutes," he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the officials did not allocate public funds or resources for their private use.

"The official does have authority to regulate how lanes are used on the highway and say these are going to be used for Fort Lee, these aren't," Roberts said. "They're still being used for public purposes."

Justice Elena Kagan also appeared to have her doubts.

"If I look at this, and I'm an ordinary juror, I'm thinking, you know, the object of this deception was not to obtain property," Kagan said. "The object was to create a traffic jam. The object was to benefit people politically."

The nine justices of the Supreme Court are expected to issue a ruling by June.