Should someone be sent to prison for a political dirty trick?
The US Supreme Court will address the question on Tuesday when it hears a bizarre case known as “Bridgegate” involving the use of a monster traffic jam to settle a political score.
The case dates back to 2013 when New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie was running for reelection and Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, declined to endorse him.
Aides to Christie were accused of creating traffic gridlock on the George Washington Bridge leading from Fort Lee to New York City as political retribution against Sokolich.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were convicted of fraud for concocting a scheme to shut down lanes on the busy bridge over the Hudson River during the morning rush hour.
On the first day of school in September, two of the three lanes on the bridge out of Fort Lee were closed for a fictional “traffic study,” backing up cars and trucks in New Jersey for hours.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an email to another official in the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.
The traffic chaos lasted for four days, causing children to be late for school, commuters late for work and leaving emergency vehicles stuck in gridlocked traffic.
Christie claimed to have no knowledge of the plan and fired Kelly.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” the governor said, branding it “stupid” and “deceitful.”
Despite his denials, Christie’s popularity plummeted, dragging down his hopes of becoming the 2016 Republican presidential nominee at the same time.
– ‘Ministry of Truth’ –
Kelly and Baroni were convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 and 18 months in prison respectively.
They appealed their convictions arguing that while their conduct may have been “petty, insensitive, and ill-advised,” it was not criminal.
“In our system, political abuses of power are addressed politically,” they argued in a court brief.
Their convictions, they argued, “would transform the judiciary into a Ministry of Truth for every public official in the nation.”
“And it would readily enable partisans not just to harangue and harass political opponents — but to prosecute and jail them,” they said.
Government prosecutors disagreed and in their own brief said that “the conspirators could realign the lanes (on the bridge) only by lying about the existence of a traffic study.”
“By telling those lies, and diverting the agency’s resources to serve their own personal ends of inflicting massive four-day gridlock on Fort Lee, Kelly and Baroni committed fraud,” they said.
It will be up to the nine justices of the nation’s top court to decide whether the convictions should stand.
They are expected to issue a ruling by June.