The Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the fraud convictions of two former aides to New Jersey governor Chris Christie for their roles in crafting the "Bridgegate" scandal.
Bridget Kelly, once Christie's deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, a top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were charged and convicted under federal fraud laws for orchestrating the scheme. The High Court acknowledged that the scandal involved deceit and corruption but said Kelly and Baroni did not break the law because they never meant to deprive the government of money or property.
For four days in 2013, the pair reassigned traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge typically reserved for residents of Fort Lee, N.J., to punish the town's mayor for withholding support of Christie's reelection bid. Though Christie was never implicated, the long-running scandal dealt a crippling blow to his political standing ahead of the 2016 presidential primaries.
Justice Elena Kagan delivered the Court's unanimous decision.
"As Kelly's own lawyer acknowledged, this case involves an ‘abuse of power,'" Kagan wrote. "For no reason other than political payback, Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort Lee's access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town's residents. But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime."
Under a decades-old arrangement, three traffic lanes feeding into the George Washington Bridge were designated for Fort Lee residents. Kelly and Baroni reallocated two of those lanes for general use, using a phony traffic study as a pretext. Chaos followed.
"According to the Fort Lee Chief of Police, the traffic rivaled that of 9/11, when the George Washington Bridge had shut down. School buses stood in place for hours," Kagan wrote. "An ambulance struggled to reach the victim of a heart attack; police had trouble responding to a report of a missing child."
Federal prosecutors said the scheme violated federal fraud laws in two ways. First, the pair effectively took control of two lanes on the bridge, thus depriving the government of its property. Second, extra toll collectors were needed to service the one remaining access lane for Fort Lee residents, costing the Port Authority needless overtime payments.
The Court rejected both theories. The key, Kagan explained, is that the scheme's goal was political retribution, not shorting the Port Authority of money and property. The lane reallocation was an ordinary, if unseemly, exercise of regulatory power, the Court said. No property was lost since Kelly and Baroni did not "walk away with the lanes; nor did they take the lanes from the government by converting them to a non-public use." The additional labor costs were an "incidental byproduct" of implementing the regulation.
Kelly and Baroni were also convicted on conspiracy charges. Those convictions also fall with Thursday's ruling. A third collaborator turned state's witness, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty to two felony counts as part of a plea deal.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly reined in the government's readings of public corruption laws, making it harder for federal prosecutors to convict public officials for misconduct. Those statutes, Kagan wrote Thursday, do not "[criminalize] all acts of dishonesty by state and local officials."
For example, the justices unanimously lifted former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell's corruption convictions in 2016. McDonnell, who like Christie was once a rising star in Republican politics, was found guilty of bribery after he accepted over $170,000 worth of gifts in exchange for political favors. Under the bribery law, prosecutors must show that an official accepted bribes or kickbacks in exchange for an "official act."
In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court cut back on the government's definition of "official act," saying it reaches only formal and specific exercises of power. Taking a meeting or organizing an event, as McDonnell had done, does not count.
Christie himself was on hand at the Supreme Court in January for arguments in the case, seated in front of Kelly in the Court's public gallery.
"It's been a long six years. I hope he had a harder time seeing me than I had seeing him," Kelly told reporters after the argument.
The case is No. 18-1059 Kelly v. United States.