On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the long-awaited “Bridgegate” case. Those in and around New Jersey will remember the case as the 2013 scandal that paved the way for Governor and Presidential Candidate Chris Christie (R-N.J.) to become Television Commentator Chris Christie.
United States v. Kelly raises some important legal questions about the obligations and accountability of government officials generally; in 2020 though, it’s impossible to view the case through any lens that ignores the parallels to the impeachment of Donald Trump. While the cases are not identical — most significantly, Chris Christie himself is not a defendant in the Bridgegate case — they stand on common legal ground.
1. Both involved relatively isolated decisions based on obviously political motivations.
In September 2013, traffic on the George Washington Bridge (the busiest bridge in the world, which connects Fort Lee New Jersey and New York City) was an absolute mess. Traffic patterns had been abruptly altered such that only one lane allowed travel for Fort Lee residents. It was the first day of school, and both commuters and school buses were delayed for hours. As it turned out, the gridlock had been intentionally caused by Governor Christie’s staff, as political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, after he declined to endorse Christie for re-election.
Port Authority (the entity that controls the bridge’s traffic flow) executive David Wildstein told Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly that the Port Authority could “close down those Fort Lee lanes” on the bridge “to put some pressure” on Sokolich. Kelly responded in an email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Later, Wildstein, along with William Baroni (Christie’s deputy executive director of the Port Authority) and Kelly falsely told Port Authority employees that they were conducting a traffic study. The Port Authority footed a $5,400 for an extra toll collector and traffic engineer to carry out the phony traffic study.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to probation. Kelly and Baroni were indicted on federal fraud charges, and were each initially sentenced to 18 months of prison time. Their appeals are now before the Supreme Court.
Team Christie’s effort to strongarm political rivals by holding traffic patterns hostage are not entirely unlike President Trump’s alleged conditioning of military aid and a visible White House visit on Ukraine’s anti-Biden political assistance. Certainly, the method and consequences are different, but the underlying methodology is the same. The mafiaesque be-a-good-soldier-or-suffer-the-consequences messaging is from the same playbook.
2. At issue is whether the wrongdoing amounts to “a crime.”
Impeachment skeptics have been quick to point out that even if President Trump’s actions regarding Ukrainian aid were imperfect, they do not rise to the level of an impeachable “high crime or misdemeanor.” Similarly, Bridgegate defendants Kelly and Baroni now ask the Supreme Court to overturn their convictions, arguing that their conduct did not sufficiently constitute criminal fraud under the applicable statutes. Even if their conduct was “petty, sensitive, and ill-advised,”argue the defendants, it still wasn’t fraud. In essence, both scenarios raise the same question: if an official has the legal authority to make a decision, does that decision become actionably illegal if it is made for personal, rather than public, benefit?
The Bridgegate defendants argue that to hold them criminally accountable for fraud would open the floodgates by putting “every official action in the sights of the fraud laws, turning them into broad government ethics codes,” and would risk “transform[ing] the judiciary into a Ministry of Truth for every public official in the nation.” Many Congressional Republicans have made similar arguments against considering Trump’s actions impeachable under Constitutional standards.
Fmr. GOP Rep. Bill McCollum says he does not believe linking Ukraine aid to the investigation of the Bidens ranks as a high crime and misdemeanor. “Just withholding the aid on that basis doesn’t strike me as one of those types of things that I would remove a president for.” pic.twitter.com/VCqsyP3wwX
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) December 30, 2019
3. Litigants in both cases are relying on the “but nobody got hurt” argument.
Many a Republican has said that Ukraine got its aid before any deadline for funding expired.
The Dems’ problem: the facts aren’t on their side.
– Transcript shows no link between aid & investigations
– Trump & Zelensky say there was no pressure
– Ukraine got the aid without doing anything
— Steve Scalise (@SteveScalise) December 14, 2019
The lack of tangible long-term consequences for Ukraine, many argue, negates any argument for impeachment. Similarly, the Bridgegate defendants argue that politically-motivated lane-closures are an exercise of “regulatory power” — and have not deprived anyone of “property” within the meaning of the fraud statutes. In her brief to the high court, Bridget Anne Kelly argued as follows:
Efforts to affect regulatory actions, even if deceitful, are therefore not schemes to “obtain property.” They may be schemes to deprive the public of the official’s honest services, if motivated by bribes or kickbacks. But those private financial gains are the sole ulterior motives for official action that can give rise to federal fraud. Property fraud, meanwhile, occurs only when an official schemes to “obtain” public resources for a truly private use.
4. Both cases arise at a time when the Supreme Court appears to be relaxing interpretative rules in public corruption cases.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has handled several high-profile corruption cases. It reversed the corruption convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonell as well of those of New York State lawmakers Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos, and Adam Skelos—in each case ruling that the findings against the wrongdoers failed to rise to the level of criminal bribery. Writing for a unanimous court in the McDonnell case, Chief Justice John Roberts said McDonnell’s behavior had been “distasteful,” but mentioned that he was wary of the “broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
Of course, President Trump is not being impeached specifically under the federal bribery statute, but rather, under specific Articles of Impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. While criminal prosecutions demand a level of legal precision that political impeachments do not, it is Roberts who will preside over Trump’s Senate trial. His skepticism in interpreting corruption too broadly is bound to become relevant at some point in those proceedings — and Tuesday’s Bridgegate arguments might be the perfect precursor.
[image via Jim Watson /AFP/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.