The U.S. Supreme Court surprised New Jersey’s political class and much of the nation recently by agreeing to hear the appeal of Bridget Kelly, the aide to former Gov. Chris Christie who was convicted for her role in the 2013 Bridgegate conspiracy.
Kelly’s petition to the top court said prosecutors had used and lower courts accepted “vague federal criminal law to impose ‘standards of … good government’ on ‘local and state officials.’”
Legal experts said taking the case suggests the Supreme Court justices are open to overturning her conviction, as well as that of Bill Baroni, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official already serving an 18-month sentence. He was released and, like Kelly, will remain free until after the appeal is heard, perhaps in December or early 2020.
Kelly and Baroni have denied having central roles in the 2013 closing of some lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish the politically unsupportive mayor of Fort Lee, Bergen County, with traffic jams. The Supreme Court, however, is almost certainly concerned with the federal corruption laws used to convict them.
The assistant dean of the George Washingon University Law School, Jessica Tillipman, told the New York Times that there has been a stream of Supreme Court cases that “has continued to limit prosecutorial discretion and prosecutorial authority when it comes to corruption cases. … So the fact that they took on another corruption case to me signals that there’s a good chance that the statutes will be further narrowed once again.”
If so, there would be a certain poetic, and maybe political, justice in the reversal of the case against two New Jersey Republican operatives. Previously the court’s 2016 ruling that a corrupt “official act” had to be a formal exercise of power was instrumental in the dropping of the federal corruption case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who had maintained that the charges against him were unfounded.
At that time we suggested that Congress should update federal anti-corruption law to restore the ability to prosecute officials who use their citizen-granted powers to do favors for people who reward them. Whether that’s possible from the Supreme Court’s view is unclear. The justices seem to be suggesting that corruption-related law which can be stretched and used for political purposes isn’t law at all but politics.
A senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, Dan Weiner, said the court has an “extraordinarily cynical view of politics and public service where this dodgy behavior is just part and parcel of the political game.” Many would call such a view realistic rather than cynical.
As it did in its recent decision on gerrymandering, the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be suggesting that the ultimate arbiter of political conduct must be the voters. Maybe so. As we said in the Menendez case, voters would have the final say, and they then re-elected him. They also weighed in on Christie and Bridgegate, which his foes used to help scuttle his presidential campaign and weaken his governorship.
Whether voters have the will and ability to assume greater responsibility for limiting political corruption is an open question. One thing for sure, given the extent of governmental corruption at all levels, the existing laws and practices are a pretty easy act to follow.