Supreme Court: New Jersey can quit mob-busting port agency

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The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (IL file photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court says New Jersey can withdraw from a commission created decades ago with New York to combat the mob’s influence at their joint port.

The high court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the Garden State doesn’t need New York’s consent to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. The commission was created in 1953 when organized crime had infiltrated the port and was demanding payments from workers and shippers through extortion and violence.

New Jersey lawmakers have said that changes in the industry, including the development of container shipping, have lessened the influence of organized crime at the port and reduced the need for the commission. The state says the commission has become “an impediment to economic growth.”

“We hold that New Jersey may unilaterally withdraw from the Waterfront Commission Compact notwithstanding New York’s opposition,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court. 

The two-member commission — with one commissioner from each state — oversees licensing and inspections at the Port of New York and New Jersey and has its own police force. It employs about 70 people.

The commission’s formation followed by several decades the creation of the vastly bigger Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees transportation infrastructure in the region.

In 2018, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, signed legislation withdrawing his state from the Waterfront Commission Compact. New York took the issue to the Supreme Court, which handles disputes between states.

The language of the compact creating the commission does not specifically address whether either state can decide on its own to withdraw. Kavanaugh wrote for the court that under “the default contract-law rule at the time of the Compact’s 1953 formation, as well as today, a contract” like this one can be terminated “at the will of either party.”

Today, the majority of the port’s business goes through its New Jersey side. That’s a change from when the commission was created and about 70% of the port’s business came through the New York side of the port. Now, in the era of container shipping, about 80% of cargo goes through New Jersey.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “thrilled” with the ruling, adding in a statement that the New Jersey state police are “more than capable of taking on the Commission’s law enforcement and regulatory responsibilities.”

New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, and attorney general, Letitia James, expressed disappointment in the court’s decision, calling the Waterfront Commission “a vital law enforcement agency.”

“We will continue to do everything in our power to combat corruption and crime, protect the health of our economy, and ensure the safety of New Yorkers,” the Democrats said in a joint statement.

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