U.S. Supreme Court to decide who will win fight between N.J. and N.Y. over waterfront watchdog

Published: Jun. 21, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court will finally decide whether New Jersey can, in fact, walk away from an agreement it made nearly 70 years ago.

After ordering a temporary halt in March to the state’s planned unilateral exit from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the high court on Tuesday said it will consider arguments over whether Trenton lawmakers could legally able break the 1953 bi-state compact with New York creating the watchdog agency.

New York went to the Supreme Court earlier this year, arguing that they could not.

“The compact specifies the only two ways the agreement may be terminated: mutual consent of the compacting states or congressional repeal,” New York wrote. “New Jersey’s attempt to engraft a third method into the agreement — unilateral termination — is contrary to the compact’s express terms.”

The commission wields broad powers that were intended to keep crime and corruption from the region’s ports and piers.

The court’s acceptance of the case came after New York and New Jersey jointly filed a petition last month asking the justices decide the long-running dispute.

“As New Jersey and New York agree, this important question of compact interpretation falls well within the heartland of this court’s original and exclusive jurisdiction,” they wrote, referring to the interstate compact, or agreement, that created the commission. “Because the commission, a bistate agency, exercises broad regulatory and law-enforcement authority within the borders of both states, New York and New Jersey share an interest in expeditiously resolving their dispute regarding its continued authority.”

The court, in granting the states’ joint motion on Tuesday, set an Aug. 22 deadline for New Jersey to file an answer to New York’s complaint and a motion for judgment. New York’s opposition and cross-motion for judgment is due on or before Oct. 21. Both states then have until November to file replies.

Sheldon H. Laskin, a retired adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and former counsel for the Multistate Tax Commission, another interstate compact agency, has been closely following the Waterfront Commission arguments. He was not surprised the court took the case, but was a bit surprised that the court did not ask the U.S. Solicitor General to file a brief.

The U.S. Solicitor General’s office argues the government’s position for the Justice Department in cases before the Supreme Court.

“While it could still do so, ordinarily you’d expect the court to have done so in the briefing schedule,” said Laskin, who wrote about the Waterfront Commission dispute recently in the Rutgers Law Record. “Given that the compact is congressionally approved, I’d expect the court to want to hear from the Solicitor General.”

That they did not, he said, was not a good sign for New York.

New Jersey has maintained that the Waterfront Commission compact is silent as to withdrawal, noting that the court itself has repeatedly refused to construe silence in an interstate compact as stripping the states of their “sovereign powers.”

“Member states retain a sovereign right to withdraw except when the compact says otherwise,” argued the state.

The Waterfront Commission, which includes one member from each state appointed by its governor, has jurisdiction over all the region’s piers and terminals, including the ports in Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Staten Island and Brooklyn. It certifies that those hired on the waterfront are not tied to organized crime and are otherwise fit to work in the shipping trade.

The New Jersey Legislature voted in 2018 to withdraw from the commission, amid political pressure from the New York Shipping Association and the International Longshoremen’s Association — both major contributors to legislators. The bill was signed by outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie in his last week in office, despite vetoing similar legislation earlier over concerns that it might be unconstitutional.

But Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has continued to push for New Jersey’s exit from the commission. He argued that the state’s withdrawal from the commission was long overdue, with most of the work on the ports of New York Harbor now concentrated among the marine terminals in New Jersey. Declaring that the commission “has long outlived its usefulness,” the governor said the State Police could effectively provide oversight of the port.

The State Police had already begun preparations for assuming an enforcement role at the port when the court ordered New Jersey to stand down in March.

New York has criticized New Jersey for its failure to consider the impact the commission has in the ongoing fight against organized crime.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-22 02:33:42 -0700