Supreme Court seems to favor Jersey in dispute with New York over port watchdog

FILE - A view of shipping containers at Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal, a major component of the Port of New York and New Jersey, on Feb. 17, 2023. (Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court seemed ready Wednesday to allow New Jersey to withdraw from a commission the state created decades ago with New York to combat the mob's influence at their joint port.

During arguments at the high court both liberal and conservative justices suggested 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.

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.

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.

Chief Justice John Roberts at one point during argument said it seemed to him that after 70 years of the Waterfront Commission's operation "it's going to take a long time and hard work to kind of unravel all of this" if New Jersey wants to walk away.

At another point, however, Roberts distinguished the Port Authority from the Waterfront Commission, which he called a "very important but relatively small enterprise dealing with a particular problem." Roberts suggested to Judith Vale, who was arguing on behalf of New York, that it would be "not that disruptive" for New Jersey to withdraw.

Vale pushed back, suggesting the commission, which employs about 70 people, makes it "harder for corruption and undue influence to succeed."

Justice Amy Coney Barrett told Vale that it "seems very odd" that New York wants to hang on to the commission when the majority of the port's business goes through its New Jersey side.

At the time the commission was created, about 70 percent of the port's business came through the New York side of the port. Now, in the era of container shipping, about 80 percent of cargo goes through New Jersey.

New Jersey lawmakers say 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."

In 2018, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, signed legislation withdrawing his state from the compact. Ultimately, however, 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. But New Jersey argued, among other things, that "mere silence as to withdrawal gives one State no basis to hold another hostage to a compact forever." Some justices also seemed particularly persuaded by New Jersey's assertion that the commission was always intended to be temporary.

"We know here that the parties never intended for this to be perpetual," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up in New York.

Elena Kagan, who also grew up in New York, was similarly skeptical of the state's argument as was the court's only member from New Jersey, Justice Samuel Alito.

New Jersey has the support of the Biden administration, which has told the court that the compact's text suggests either state can withdraw on its own.

New York argued that when the compact was written, the states "intended to prohibit unilateral termination, not allow it."