In 2013, officials with ties to Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, altered the traffic pattern on the George Washington Bridge in an effort to punish the mayor of nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, for his failure to support Christie’s reelection bid. The change in the traffic pattern led to four days of gridlock on the streets surrounding the bridge before the original pattern was eventually restored. Two of the officials responsible for the change were found guilty of violating federal statutes prohibiting wire fraud and fraud from federally funded programs. But today the Supreme Court threw out those convictions. In a unanimous decision by Justice Elena Kagan, the court ruled that although the officials’ actions were an “abuse of power,” they did not violate the federal fraud laws because the “scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property.”
The defendants in the case were Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, whom Christie had named as the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. For many years, three of the 12 toll lanes on the upper deck of the bridge going from New Jersey into New York have been cordoned off with traffic cones during the morning rush hour, so that local traffic from Fort Lee can cross the bridge more easily. After Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, declined to endorse Christie in 2013, Baroni and Kelly – along with David Wildstein, a Port Authority staffer – decided to retaliate against Sokolich by reducing the number of lanes reserved for Fort Lee drivers to one. They made the change on the first day of school in September 2013, without notifying Sokolich in advance. To explain the change to Port Authority employees, the trio concocted a fictitious traffic study.
Kelly and Baroni were sentenced to 18 months in prison, although Kelly’s sentence was later reduced to 13 months. A federal appeals court upheld their convictions, agreeing with the government that the requirements of the fraud statutes had been met. Kelly and Baroni had engaged in deception when they lied about the traffic study to justify the change to the toll lanes, the court reasoned, and those lies deprived the Port Authority of its property – both its right to control the bridge lanes and the cost (approximately $5,400 to have an extra toll collector standing by and for traffic engineers to conduct the fictitious traffic study) of the otherwise unnecessary labor of its employees. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case last year and heard argument in January.
Today the Supreme Court reversed. In a 13-page opinion, Kagan emphasized that the government needed to show “not only that Baroni and Kelly engaged in deception,” but that they did so to obtain property. The Supreme Court has made clear that unless bribes or kickbacks are involved (which, Kagan noted, are not at issue in this case), federal fraud laws cannot be used as a general tool to fight public corruption; they apply only when efforts to obtain money or property are involved.
The court rejected the government’s argument that Baroni and Kelly’s scheme intended to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property because they sought to take over the lanes on the bridge and because the Port Authority had to pay the traffic engineers and the toll collector as a result. The lane realignment, the court explained, was simply a “run-of-the-mine exercise of regulatory power” that “cannot count as the taking of property.” The court acknowledged that there could be scenarios in which the use of government employees’ time and labor could count as “property” for purposes of federal fraud prosecutions – for example, if “a city parks commissioner induces his employees into doing gardening work for political contributors.” But to sustain a conviction for property fraud, the court explained, getting the property needs to be the point of the scheme – which it was not in this case. Baroni and Kelly weren’t trying to use the extra toll collector’s services or the data that the traffic engineers collected; the cost of the employees’ labor was simply an “incidental byproduct” of their scheme.
The court stressed that accepting the government’s argument would allow the federal government to “use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policymaking.” The court did not endorse Kelly and Baroni’s actions: It noted that 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, the court concluded, “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”
The justices have repeatedly pushed back against efforts by federal prosecutors to use federal fraud laws to combat public corruption, so today’s ruling was not necessarily a surprise. But it was still a welcome ruling for Kelly and Baroni. Baroni applauded the ruling as a “clear statement” of his innocence. “After years of investigations, indictments, trials, appeals, and even prison,” Baroni wrote, “today the Court has vindicated me and made clear that I committed no crime.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.