U.S. Supreme Court backs New Jersey’s bid to quit Waterfront Commission

New York fought for five years to maintain the port-oversight partnership, citing crime concerns

By: - April 18, 2023 2:04 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with New Jersey in an April 18, 2023, ruling that clears the way for the Garden State to leave the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with New Jersey in its five-year bid to quit an interstate commission officials created 70 years ago to crack down on organized crime and corruption at ports in New York Harbor.

New York officials had fought New Jersey’s withdrawal, warning crime would spike on both sides of the harbor without the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor’s oversight. They also had argued that New Jersey lacked the authority to unilaterally leave the bistate agreement.

But Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for a unanimous court, wrote that the compact’s silence on withdrawal doesn’t equate to a prohibition on withdrawal. Both states also had agreed that officials who forged the partnership back in 1953 never intended for the compact or the commission to operate forever, Kavanagh noted.

“The compact involves the delegation of a fundamental aspect of a state’s sovereign power — its ability to protect the people, property, and economic activity within its borders — to a bistate agency,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But the two states, he added, “did not permanently give up, absent the states’ joint consent or congressional action to terminate the compact, their authority to withdraw from the compact and to exercise those sovereign police powers at the port as each state sees fit.”

The decision comes six weeks after the nation’s top court heard arguments in the case and a year after it temporarily blocked New Jersey’s exit from the commission, pending its final decision.

Tuesday’s ruling clears the way for New Jersey to quit the commission for good.

Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “thrilled” with the Supreme Court’s decision after years of mounting frustration with the commission’s operations.

“Since the first hours of our time in office, my administration has steadfastly pursued the dissolution of the Waterfront Commission because it was the right thing to do,” Murphy said in a statement. “Over 90 percent of commerce at our ports happens on the New Jersey side, and the New Jersey State Police, one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the nation, is more than capable of taking on the commission’s law enforcement and regulatory responsibilities.”

New Jersey officials also had complained the commission was ill-equipped to handle modern security challenges and over-regulated the port, stifling jobs.

The port is the largest on the East Coast and third largest in the nation, sprawling over a region that roughly covers a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty.

Murphy said he was “proud” that the long court battle vindicated New Jersey’s sovereign right to govern its ports. Officials now will work toward “a swift and orderly dissolution of the commission in a way that ensures security and uninterrupted business at New Jersey’s ports,” the governor added.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she was “disappointed” in the decision.

“For decades, the Waterfront Commission has been a vital law enforcement agency, protecting essential industries at the port and cracking down on organized crime,” Hochul said in a statement. “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.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.