Thursday, May 21, 2020

George Washington Bridge traffic-blockers are off the hook

This was a creative but dastardly way to punish the mayor of a New Jersey city for not backing the reelection campaign of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His assistants decided to close the traffic lanes on the busiest bridge in the country, tangling traffic in Fort Lee in a way that people are still trying to recover from, seven years later. This ruined Christie's political career and landed his associates in serious criminal trouble. The convictions are now overturned.

The case is Kelly v. United States, issued by the Supreme Court on May 7. Everyone knows that what the governor's people did was wrong, even despicable. Ever sit in traffic in Fort Lee (or anywhere else) for two (or more) hours? The defendants bragged about the bridge-closure, which fouled everything up on the first day of school, and an ambulance struggled to reach a heart attack victim. Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Kagan refers to them as the "cast of characters." She notes that Christie "wanted to notch a large bipartisan victory as he ramped up for a presidential campaign." Little did Christie know that corruption far greater than this would be necessary to be elected president. Gov. Christie was not charged, but he suffered his own humiliation in being deemed too currupt to work in the Trump administration. The traffic tie-up must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and it certainly was a Jersey thing to so. But it was not illegal, the Court says.

The fraud statute under which the defendants were found guilty requires that the defendants commit property fraud. The wire fraud law makes it a crime to effect "any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for  obtaining money or property by means of false of fraudulent representations, or promises." This means that much dishonesty is not covered under the statute, which further means the states have to deal with things like this, not federal prosecutors.

The government tried to defend the convictions by arguing that the defendants lied about a fictional traffic study as an excuse to close the bridge lanes. This scheme would obtain the Port Authority's money or property by taking control of the bridge lanes and depriving the PA of money to pay traffic engineers and toll collectors who performed the work of reallocating the bridge lanes. The Court disagrees, conceding that this realignment was a classic exercise of governmental regulatory power, which cannot by definition constitute an effort to appropriate governmental money. That was not the objective of the scheme, however; the point was to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee. The appropriation of governmental money was incidental to the bridge-closure. Bottom line, as Justice Kagan writes, "Not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime."

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