U.S. Supreme Court signals sympathy with New Jersey’s bid to exit port watchdog

By: - March 1, 2023 4:26 pm

Lawyers asked justices to decide whether N.J. must continue to be a part of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor against its will. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a New Jersey-New York showdown over the fate of an interstate commission created 70 years ago to crack down on organized crime and corruption at the port.

And judging by some justices’ questions, New Jersey might win this one.

Lawyers from both sides of the Hudson asked the nation’s top court to decide the meaty matter of state sovereignty — and whether New Jersey must continue to be a partner in the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor against its will indefinitely, merely because Eisenhower-era officials failed to outline an exit plan in the compact binding the states.

This is the argument New York Deputy Solicitor General Judith Vale made to the justices Wednesday, that the compact requires the agreement of both states on all matters, including abolishing the commission, and New Jersey’s unilateral decision to withdraw strips New York of its sovereign rights.

“Your argument is … to surrender this sovereign authority perpetually,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Vale. “Isn’t that an extraordinary thing?”

New Jersey has fought to be free of the compact for years, saying the commission stifles commerce and worsens worker shortages through overregulation and is “ill-equipped to handle 21st Century security challenges.” The state instead wants to task state police with port security.

New Jersey Solicitor General Jeremy Feigenbaum argued Wednesday that nothing in the compact expressly prohibits either state from withdrawing from it.

New York insists the commission remains an indispensable protection from criminals who continue trying to prey on the port, a bustling business hub for both states. 

“I’m just wondering what New York’s view of the end game is here?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said after a back-and-forth with Vale.

The justices and the lawyers before them spent much of the hearing trying to figure out what long-dead state officials intended when they signed the compact creating the commission in 1953.

After Vale acknowledged that she didn’t think officials intended the compact to last forever, Sotomayor responded, “Once you said they didn’t intend for it to be perpetual, I think that’s the end of the game.”

Sotomayor added that binding two parties “who are at loggerheads” to an indefinite partnership “just doesn’t work and makes no sense for anyone. And so how is that going to be any different here?”

Some justices questioned why New York is clinging to the compact, considering how New Jersey now receives most of the port’s shipping traffic, unlike when the states first partnered in 1953, when just 30% of ships landed on Jersey’s shoreline.

“It seems very odd that New York’s hanging on to this when New Jersey has 82% of the shipping on its side,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett said.

New Jersey passed a law in 2018 calling for the state to withdraw from the commission, but it was barred from doing so under an injunction that lapsed in November 2021. New York asked the Supreme Court last March to intervene, and the high court barred New Jersey from exiting the commission until it decides the case.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.