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Will the Supreme Court Use Bridgegate to Further Kneecap Anti-Corruption Laws?

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks about his knowledge of a traffic study that snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge during a news conference on January 9th, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey.

Time for some traffic problems at the Supreme Court, which recently announced that it will hear the appeal of “Bridgegate” co-defendants Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni during its upcoming term this fall.

Bridgegate was the politically-motivated closure of lanes of the George Washington Bridge by then-New Jersey-Governor Chris Christie‘s Chief of Staff, Kelly, and two executives, including Baroni, at the Port Authority, the agency that oversees much of the infrastructure connecting New York and New Jersey, including the George Washington Bridge. The mayor of Fort Lee, the municipality on the New Jersey side of the bridge, had been expected to endorse Christie during his 2013 re-election campaign, but ultimately did not. As alleged retribution, the Christie allies conspired to close lanes on the bridge for a five-day “traffic study” whose only purpose was hours of gridlock in Fort Lee, stretching a 30-minute drive to 4 hours for thousands of commuters, and slowing response times of emergency vehicles. (The other Port Authority executive, David Wildstein, testified that the sole purpose of the traffic study was “punishing Mayor Sokolich.” Kelly and Baroni maintain that they thought it was a real study.)

Kelly and Baroni were found guilty of having defrauded the Port Authority out of the money it paid employees to work on the fabricated traffic study. They were originally convicted in 2016, and a federal court of appeals upheld their conviction last fall. Kelly and Baroni argue they didn’t commit fraud even if the traffic study was never an actual reason for the shutdown; their case is based on a claim that giving a nominal public-policy justification for an official decision that isn’t its “subjective real reason” does not meet the traditional definition of fraud under federal law. “We don’t normally treat it as a crime if a politician ‘spins’ something, or lies about the real reason they did something—if they claim they’re just acting in the public interest, but in fact, they were doing something to please their base or hurt their opponents or whatever,” says Randall Eliason, a law professor at George Washington University and former federal prosecutor. “If this fraud theory holds up, you could potentially turn almost any political decision into a crime.”

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