The Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the convictions of two key players in the so-called Bridgegate case that rocked the administration of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie aide, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the George Washington Bridge, were found guilty in 2016 after a jury determined that they had shut down two of three lanes leading to the bridge, resulting in a monumental traffic jam in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Prosecutors said Kelly and Baroni ordered the shutdown to punish the mayor of Fort Lee after he refused to support Christie's re-election campaign.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Elana Kagan, a New York City native, the court said federal prosecutors wrongly charged the two officials with violating laws that target fraudulent schemes for obtaining property. Realigning the bridge traffic was an exercise of regulatory power, not an attempt to get money or property, the court said.
The brief Supreme Court opinion was a complete rejection of the prosecution's theory of the case. No doubt the two officials acted wrongly, it said, and the jury heard evidence of "deception, corruption, abuse of power. But federal fraud statutes do not criminalize all such conduct." It's a crime only if the object of their dishonesty was to obtain government money or property.
Federal prosecutors cannot use the property fraud laws to set standards for official conduct, the court said. If they could, "every lie a state or local official tells in making such a decision" would be a federal crime. The Justice Department cannot use criminal law "to enforce its view of integrity in broad swatches of state and local policymaking."
The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday did not come as a surprise. When the case was argued in January, several justices appeared to be skeptical of the prosecution's theory that the two had committed fraud by lying about their reason for closing the bridge. Kelly and Baroni had said they needed to conduct a study of traffic patterns, but the jury found that the real reason was to punish the mayor of Fort Lee.
The justices also seemed concerned that if the court upheld the convictions, it would open the door to charging any public official with fraud by asserting that he or she lied in claiming to act in the public interest. That might include a city official who orders potholes repaired to reward the mayor's political base while justifying it on policy grounds.
Kelly and Baroni had been sentenced to prison. Kelly was to report in the summer but has been allowed to remain free while the case was on appeal. Baroni began serving his sentence in April but was released on bond when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In a lengthy statement, Christie, a Republican whose reputation was tarnished by the scandal, lauded the decision and bashed the Justice Department for having pursued the charges in the first place.
"As many contended from the beginning, and as the Court confirmed today, no federal crimes were ever committed in this matter by anyone in my Administration," Christie said. "It is good for all involved that today justice has finally been done."
Christie, who attended the Supreme Court arguments in January, added that there would be "no words of apology that would be sufficient to right the wrongs."
President Donald Trump congratulated Christie in a tweet, and also accused Democrats of having been "caught doing very evil things."
"This was grave misconduct by the Obama Justice Department!" he tweeted.