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Supreme Court lets New Jersey exit mob-fighting commission

New York and New Jersey agreed to form a joint commission to stamp out crime at New York Harbor but they disagreed over its dissolution. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court gave New Jersey the green light on Tuesday to leave a joint commission formed with its neighbor to police crime in New York Harbor.

The justices appeared to favor arguments from the Garden state when they heard oral arguments in March. Unconvinced by claims by New York Deputy Solicitor General Judith Vale that the lack of a termination agreement held New Jersey in the compact indefinitely, the justices worried ruling against New Jersey would harm its sovereignty. 

"Because the compact is silent as to unilateral withdrawal, the court looks to background principles of law that would have informed the parties’ understanding when they entered the compact," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the unanimous court Tuesday.

He added, "Here, the states delegated their sovereign authority to the commission on an ongoing and indefinite basis. The default contract-law rule therefore 'speaks in the silence of the compact' and indicates that either state may unilaterally withdraw."

The high court held that interstate compacts are construed as contracts and based on the contract laws at the time of the compact’s formation, an agreement that contemplates “continuing performance for an indefinite time is to be interpreted as stipulating only for performance terminable at the will of either party.”

However, the ruling notes that the contract-law rule that governs the compact in this case does not apply to other forms of compacts that “do not exclusively call for ongoing performance on an indefinite basis” – such as compacts apportioning water rights, setting boundaries or other conveying property interests.

The justices concluded that the states did not intend for the compact to operate forever and that principles of state sovereignty also weigh in support of New Jersey’s position.

“The nature of the delegation at issue here—delegation of a state’s sovereign power to protect the people, property, and economic activity within its borders—buttresses the conclusion that New Jersey can unilaterally withdraw,” Kavanaugh wrote.

New York and New Jersey were in agreement 70 years ago when they formed the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor to stamp out crime and corruption. The agency gained fame after targeting mobsters and crooked officials, inspiring the Oscar-winning film “On the Waterfront" starring Marlon Brando.

Its 21st-century rendition did not hold the same crime-fighting ability, however. In 2009 the commission conducted an audit that found the lawlessness the agency aimed at tackling had infiltrated its ranks. Following the audit’s findings, the commission completed a restructuring and began hiring diversity efforts to root out corruption from within. 

“The absolute control of the union over hiring in the Port for the past 60 years has resulted not only in discriminatory hiring, but also corruption, criminality and inefficiency,” a commission report from 2017 details.

Pushing back against the new hiring practices, the International Longshoremen’s Association, New York Shipping Association and Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association sued the commission. However, their efforts were unsuccessful. The Third Circuit sided with the commission, rejecting a claim that it had overstepped its authority. 

Lawmakers in New Jersey then moved to leave the commission. A suit from New York halted New Jersey’s law withdrawing from the commission from going into effect. After New Jersey re-upped the effort in 2021 following the failed lawsuit, New York brought a bill of complaint to the Supreme Court. The justices granted temporary relief to New York and then agreed to hear arguments over whether the compact allowed New Jersey to withdraw without New York’s consent. 

In a statement Tuesday, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said the Supreme Court's decision confirms that the Garden State followed the law when it chose to leave the Waterfront Commission.

“Our state's departure will ensure that the New Jersey State Police, the best in the nation, can appropriately safeguard our Port and ensure security and efficiency in the 21st Century," said Platkin, a Democrat. "I am proud of our office for leading a five-year battle in the courts, and I thank New Jersey Solicitor General Jeremy Feigenbaum and his outstanding team who brought an anticipated victory to this day.”

The New York State Attorney General's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Categories / Appeals, Government, Regional

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