Updated at 7:35 p.m.
In a unanimous decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of two former aides to the then governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, in what came to be known as the "Bridgegate" scandal.
The high court said the evidence presented to the jury "no doubt shows wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power." But because the aides involved in the scheme did not obtain money or property for themselves, they did not violate the fraud statutes under which they were prosecuted.
The decision stems from the events of September 2013 when New Jersey officials ordered the closing of two out of three access lanes from Fort Lee on to the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the country.
The result: chaos.
For four days, school buses, ambulances, and infuriated motorists alike were trapped in gridlock for hours. Paramedics responding to 911 calls even had to abandon their emergency vehicles and walk.
Ultimately the public would learn that officers in the administration of Christie, the Republican governor, ordered the lane closure to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
As the Supreme Court noted in its opinion, the plot to close the lanes took place because Christie "wanted to notch a large bipartisan victory, as he ramped up for a presidential campaign," and his aides were frustrated Fort Lee's mayor was not complying.
But, when the scheme came to light, Christie professed ignorance and fired the aides responsible, among them William Baroni, a Christie appointee charged with administering the bridge, David Wildstein, who functioned as Christie's chief of staff, and Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.
Christie was not prosecuted, but his aides were.
Wildstein pleaded guilty and became the prosecution's star witness. A jury would convict both Baroni and Kelly. Their convictions were unanimously upheld by a federal appeals court.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, also unanimously.
Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that "Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort. Lee's access lanes to the George Washington Bridge – and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town's residents. But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime. Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated" the federal fraud statutes under which they were prosecuted.
On Tuesday, Christie reacted to the decision with jubilation and fury, accusing the former U.S. Attorney who signed off on the prosecution, Paul Fishman, of self-promotion, "vindictiveness" and "misconduct."
"No one ever thought reasonably, except for Paul Fishman and the Obama Justice Department, that what they did was a crime," he said.
The prosecution, he said in a statement, "altered the course of history," implying that but for the prosecution in the case, he would likely have been the Republican candidate for president in 2016.
Christie acknowledged as much in an NPR interview noting that until the "Bridgegate" scandal he was the leading candidate in GOP presidential primary polls. "No one knows what would have happened," Christie said, but "certainly we know what the state of play was at the time all this happened."
President Trump tweeted his "congratulations" to Christie and his former aides and called the prosecution "grave misconduct by the Obama Justice Department."
Former U.S. Attorney Fishman issued a statement saying he was "disappointed" in the court's ruling and emphasized that the court "unequivocally recognized" the "deception, corruption, and abuse of power" in the case. He also added "it is stunning, but perhaps not surprising, that Chris Christie's response is to concoct accusations."
The Supreme Court's opinion, however, did not suggest misconduct. Rather, the court said the prosecution would have had to show some personal financial benefit to sustain these conviction. And there was none.
The decision is the latest wrinkle in a series of recent rulings by the court, making it increasingly difficult to prosecute public officeholders who abuse their power but fail to personally enrich themselves.
There were costs to the state government from the scheme, the court acknowledged. Extra pay for toll collectors and a fake traffic study ordered after the fact to justify the lane closures. But such incidental costs are not enough, the court said.
Still experts in public corruption law said prosecutors should be able to live with the decision.
"I don't imagine that today's opinion will prove much of an impediment," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman, who specializes in white collar criminal law. But in the future, he said, prosecutors need to take pains to highlight how whatever corrupt scheme they're laying out didn't merely have incidental effects.
Richman sees the court's decision not as any sort of condemnation of prosecutorial misconduct, but a clarification of what prosecutors need to do in the future.
Still, there is little doubt that the Supreme Court over the last 20 years or so has made these cases much tougher to bring. Congress, of course, could rewrite the statutes to allow prosecutions like those in the Bridgegate case, but as Richman observes, Congress did that in the very statutes under which these defendants were prosecuted.
As for the two Christie aides whose convictions were overturned today, their reactions were considerably more muted than Christie's and Trump's.
In a statement Kelly said that "the Court gave me back my name and began to reverse the six-and-a-half-year nightmare that has become my life...this may finally have made this case right for me, it does not absolve those who should have truly been held accountable."
Baroni issued a similar statement, thanking the court "for this clear statement of my innocence...today the Court has vindicated me and has made clear that I committed no crime....These have been very difficult years for me, my family and my friends. There were many tough days, and it was their faith in me and my innocence that allowed me to get through this."
Christina Peck contributed to this report
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously reversed the convictions of two aides to former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. The aides were tied up in the so-called Bridgegate scandal. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In September 2013, chaos ensued when New Jersey state officials ordered the closing of two out of three access lanes under the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. For four days, school buses and ambulances alike were trapped for hours in gridlock. Ultimately, the public would learn that top officials in the administration of Republican Governor Chris Christie ordered the lane closure to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for refusing to endorse Republican Christie's reelection bid.
Christie professed ignorance and fired top aides, three of whom were convicted in the affair. Among them was Bridget Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRIDGET KELLY: I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case, and I look very much forward to the appeal.
TOTENBERG: Her conviction was unanimously upheld by a federal appeals court. But today, the Supreme Court, also unanimously, disagreed. Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that because the aides involved in the case did not obtain money or property for themselves, they didn't violate the fraud statute under which they were prosecuted. Governor Christie, in an interview with NPR today, suggested that but for the prosecution, he might well have been the Republican candidate for president in 2016 since he was leading in the GOP primary polls until the scandal broke.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS CHRISTIE: I certainly was when it happened, so, you know, no one knows what would have happened from then on, but certainly we know what the state of play was at the time all this happened.
TOTENBERG: Christie also blasted the U.S. attorney who signed off on the prosecution, Paul Fishman, accusing him of self-promotion and misconduct. President Trump echoed that sentiment, tweeting congratulations to Christie and his former aides and calling the prosecution grave misconduct by the Obama Justice Department.
That, however, is not what the Supreme Court said in its opinion. Rather, the court detailed at length the sleaziness of the aides' conduct, declaring that for no reason other than political payback, Kelly and others had jeopardized public safety. But, the court said, not every corrupt act by state and local officials is a federal crime. And because the aides involved in the scheme here did not obtain money or property, they didn't violate the federal fraud laws.
The decision is the latest wrinkle in a series of recent decisions by the court making it increasingly difficult to prosecute public officeholders who abuse their power but fail to personally enrich themselves. In this case, there were costs to the state government from the scheme - extra pay for toll collectors and a fake traffic study ordered after the fact to justify the lane closures. But such incidental costs, the court said, are not enough. Still, experts in public corruption said prosecutors can live with the court's ruling.
DANIEL RICHMAN: I don't imagine that today's opinion will prove much of an impediment in the prosecution of corruption cases in the future.
TOTENBERG: Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman specializes in white-collar criminal law.
RICHMAN: Federal prosecutors in those cases will, however, need to take pains to highlight how whatever corrupt scheme they're laying out didn't have merely incidental economic effects.
TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court's opinion, he suggests, is not a repudiation of prosecutorial misconduct. Rather, he said, it's the newest wrinkle in the modern court's view of the law. Congress, of course, could try to rewrite the statutes to allow such prosecutions. But, as Richman observes, Congress did that in the very statute under which these defendants were prosecuted.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.