The justices suggested during arguments that the government had overreached in prosecuting Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni. Both were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for scheming in 2013 to change the traffic flow onto the George Washington Bridge between New York City and New Jersey to artificially create gridlock in New Jersey's Fort Lee. The change came after Fort Lee's mayor, a Democrat, declined to endorse the Republican governor.
Justice Samuel Alito, the only justice from New Jersey and someone who typically votes in favor of prosecutors, was among both liberal and conservative justices who suggested he was troubled by the government's argument.
Alito, who was born in Trenton and was the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey before becoming a judge, also couldn’t resist getting into a little New Jersey-New York rivalry in commenting on the structure of the agency that operates the George Washington Bridge. The agency's executive director is appointed by New York's governor and its deputy executive director, the position Baroni held, had been appointed by New Jersey’s governor, though the position no longer exists.
“Why would New Jersey agree to an arrangement like that where its representative is always in the second seat, at least nominally?” asked Alito. Three of Alito's colleagues — justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — grew up in New York City. Sotomayor and Kagan along with Justice Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts also suggested skepticism of Kelly and Baroni's convictions.
Roberts noted that despite the fact that Kelly and Baroni worked to create gridlock by reducing the number of bridge toll lanes reserved for Fort Lee traffic from three to one, the formerly reserved lanes were open to other traffic and therefore: “still being used for public purposes.”
The result of the so-called lane realignment was four days of traffic jams. A fictitious traffic study was used as cover for the change, but prosecutors said the real motive was political payback. At one point, Kelly, a Christie aide, wrote in an email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Christie, who was in the courtroom Tuesday, has denied knowing about the plan for gridlock ahead of time or as it was unfolding. Trial testimony contradicted his account, but the scandal helped derail his 2016 presidential bid. Kelly and Baroni, who are both free on bail, were also present for Tuesday's arguments.
Kelly was weeks from beginning a 13-month sentence last year when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Baroni had begun serving his 18-month sentence but was released from prison after the high court agreed to weigh in.
If the court sides with Kelly and Baroni, it would continue a pattern in recent years of restricting the government's ability to prosecute corruption cases. In 2016 the court overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. And in 2010 the court sharply curbed prosecutors' use of an anti-fraud law in the case of ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. A decision in the current case is expected by the end of June.
Associated Press reporter David Porter contributed to this report.