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At the U.S. Supreme Court today, the justices seemed skeptical of the prosecution of two key players in the New Jersey scandal known as Bridgegate. In 2013, top aides to then-Governor Chris Christie orchestrated a massive, days-long traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York. Three of the aides were later convicted for their roles in what turned out to be a political vendetta. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The modern-day Supreme Court has made it increasingly difficult to prosecute public officeholders who abuse their power but fail to personally enrich themselves. In recent years, the court has thrown out multiple public corruption convictions, eviscerating broad statutes aimed at ensuring the honest services of public employees.
Today's case presented the latest wrinkle. In 2013, chaos and gridlock ensued when state officials ordered the closing of two out of three access lanes onto the G.W. Bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. The four-day closure infuriated motorists and jeopardized public safety, forcing paramedics responding to 911 calls to abandon their ambulances and walk.
Ultimately, the public would learn that top officials in the administration of Republican Governor Chris Christie ordered the lane closure in order to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection. Christie professed ignorance, and a federal investigation was opened. Three of his top associates were convicted in the affair, among them Bridget Kelly, the governor's deputy chief of staff, who famously texted a colleague during the four-day chaos, is it bad that I'm smiling?
Today, the major players in the scandal were in the Supreme Court chamber. Christie sat in front of Kelly, who's been sentenced to 13 months in prison. When reporters noted that she traveled to D.C. on the train with Christie, Kelly, who's accused Christie of scapegoating her, replied this way.
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BRIDGET KELLY: I didn't come down on the train with him. Let's be clear. He was on our train.
TOTENBERG: At her trial, her lawyer, Michael Critchley, was famous for asking, where is Chris Christie?
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MICHAEL CRITCHLEY: I gave you the answer today. He's in the Supreme Court.
TOTENBERG: But Christie did not come to the microphones.
Inside the court chamber, Kelly's appellate lawyer, Jacob Roth, argued that his client did not benefit personally from the lane closures and that she therefore committed no crime. Justice Ginsburg - you said that if the resources here were diverted to private use, then the prosecution would be OK. But why isn't it a private use to benefit the defendants politically? Roth replied that if an employee lies on an expense report, she's cheating the government of money, whereas here, the deceit was that the defendants lied about why the lanes were closed, ordering state employees to conduct a fake study to cover their tracks.
Chief Justice Roberts - that can be a hard line to draw. What if the traffic rerouting is done to benefit a nearby development or hotel? Justice Alito - money is property, and state money was lost here. Roth replied that if public employees divert public resources, the remedy for that is political; throw the rascals out.
Defending the convictions in court today was Deputy Solicitor General Eric Fagan, who argued that the defendants should not get a free pass just because their motives were political. But the justices didn't seem to be buying that argument. My goodness, said Justice Breyer. The federal code is filled with rules, and everything in government requires somebody to spend some time on it. If you're going to count that as property fraud, I don't know how this case works.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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