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Justices to Decide Future of Mob Watchdog on Waterfront

June 21, 2022 by Dan McCue
Cargo ships docked in Elizabeth, N.J., one of the ports under the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor’s control. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will try to resolve a dispute between New York and New Jersey over the latter’s desire to back out of a 1953 agreement to work together to combat corruption and racketeering on the waterfront docks the two states share.

Though, as is its custom, the court did not explain its rationale for taking the case, it has been involved in the litigation since April, when it temporarily blocked New Jersey’s departure from the agreement while it considered whether to hear the argument.

The Waterfront Commission has jurisdiction over all the region’s piers and terminals, including the ports in Newark, Elizabeth and Bayonne, New Jersey, as well as Staten Island and Brooklyn, New York.

It includes one member from each state appointed by its governor and one of its primary functions is to certify that those hired on the waterfront are not tied to organized crime and are otherwise fit to work in the shipping trade.

When it was created nearly 70 years ago, the Port of New York and New Jersey was a goon’s paradise, awash in racketeering, extortion, kickbacks on wages, gambling, loansharking, theft and shakedowns.

While some always maintained that the commission was a temporary agency, commissioners across the decades insisted there was nothing temporary about the compact that created their jobs.

Nor has the need for oversight ever slackened. As David Thompson, a commissioner from New Jersey observed in The New York Times in the early 1960s, “millions of people are affected by what happens on the waterfront; our interest is in the public interest.”

Spurred on by political pressure from the New York Shipping Association and in the International Longshoremen’s Association, whose members load and unload 100% of the containerized cargo that comes through the port as well as cars and other goods, the New Jersey Legislature has been trying to escape the compact for years.

According to a statement from the association, the “current bureaucratic structure of the Waterfront Commission does not support the needs of the port industry and region.”

“Frankly,” the association continues, “it is a structure built for gridlock and inertia as each state in this bi-state compact has one commissioner. Unfortunately, both commissioners must agree to make any substantive changes.”

It argues that given nearly 90% of the port’s activity occurs in New Jersey, it makes sense for the state “to take control of its own destiny and subsequent economic development by moving the oversight of the port’s workforce and the companies that employ them to the New Jersey State Police, a law enforcement entity with substantial resources and expertise.”

New Jersey lawmakers, many of whom get reliable donations from the association and longshoremen, voted to withdraw from the compact in 2018, and then-Gov. Chris Christie, overcoming concerns the move was unconstitutional, signed the bill as he left office.

The Waterfront Commission challenged the move in court, but its lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Then, in a wholly unexpected move in May, New York state petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing New Jersey’s lawmakers could not simply decide for themselves that they no longer wanted to honor their obligations under the bilateral agreement.

“New Jersey lacks the power to withdraw unilaterally from the compact or abolish the commission without New York’s consent,” New York said in a petition that ran into the hundreds of pages.

The petition also chided New Jersey for its failure to consider the impact the commission had on the fight against organized crime.

“Through geographical and historical happenstance, the boundary line between New York and New Jersey runs through the port, which operates as a unified whole. But the organized crime families and other corrupt enterprises that seek to exert influence on port operations do not respect state lines,” the petition said.

Fighting back, New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin has argued that in order to justify its existence, the commission has “overregulated the port, stifling commerce and exacerbating worker shortages.”

Ending the commission, New York contends, “would likely increase the opportunities for individuals associated with organized crime families or other criminal enterprises to obtain access to waterfront employment at the port and use that employment for criminal activities.”

In a subsequent joint filing, the two states asked the court to grant certiorari and “resolve the core legal questions itself.”

“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,” they wrote.

But New Jersey couldn’t resist getting in a jab in the process.

“In short, the Waterfront Commission compact’s plain text is silent as to withdrawal, and this court has repeatedly refused to construe silence in an interstate compact as stripping the states of their sovereign powers,” New Jersey wrote. “Member states retain a sovereign right to withdraw except when the compact says otherwise.”

New Jersey insists New York’s claims must fail, “as a matter of law.”

On Tuesday, the justices laid out several court deadlines for motions and responses by the parties extending through November 2022.

New Jersey now has until Aug. 22, 2022, to file an answer and motion for judgment on the pleadings; New York’s opposition and cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings are due on Oct. 21, 2022; New Jersey’s response to New York’s cross-motion and reply in support of its motion is due on or before Nov. 7, 2022; and New York’s reply in support of its cross-motion is due by Nov. 22, 2022.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and @DanMcCue

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