WASHINGTON – The federal government faced tough questions at the Supreme Court Tuesday in defending criminal penalties levied against public officials who shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 for political retribution.
While none of the justices said the actions of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s associates were justified, a majority of them doubted that it amounted to property fraud worthy of prison sentences.
The scandal, which became known as “Bridgegate,” was hatched when the Christie aides faked a traffic study to create gridlock for several days in Fort Lee, N.J., whose Democratic mayor had refused to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie, who was not charged, was inside court for the oral argument.
Federal prosecutors eventually charged them with fraud and won 18-month prison sentences, which have been set aside pending the Supreme Court’s review.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued that one of the officials, William Baroni of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, actually had authority to regulate lane usage on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest in the world.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said Baroni’s actions, along with those of Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, did not stop the general public from using the bridge.
“It was just a problem getting there – which was quite a problem, I grant you,” Breyer said.
The appeal in “Bridgegate” represents the latest in a series of cases in which the high court has looked skeptically – and often reversed – federal prosecutors’ creative use of criminal laws to win convictions.
In 2016, the court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who had been sentenced to two years in prison for accepting luxury gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for “official acts.” The justices ruled unanimously that those acts were commonplace actions taken on behalf of constituents.
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