Good news, or a depressing reminder of how difficult it is to prosecute abuses of power? In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned the two criminal convictions resulting from the infamous 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal, but not because the two New Jersey officials did nothing wrong. Instead, in a decision that echoes an earlier unanimous opinion in McDonnell, the court ruled that an abuse of power does not fit under federal fraud statutes.
“Not every corrupt act by state or local officials,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the entire court, “is a federal crime.” That’s, er, a comforting thought — but maybe only to bureaucrats like Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni:
The court said in a unanimous decision Thursday that the government had overreached in prosecuting two allies of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, for their roles in a political payback scheme that created massive traffic jam to punish a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse the Republican’s reelection. Kelly was Christie’s onetime deputy chief of staff. Baroni was a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority, the operator of the New York area’s bridges, tunnels, airports and ports.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for scheming in 2013 to change the traffic flow onto the George Washington Bridge between New York City and New Jersey to artificially create gridlock in New Jersey’s Fort Lee. The traffic change came after Fort Lee’s mayor declined to endorse Christie.
“For no reason other than political payback, Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge — and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town’s residents. But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime. Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.