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Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront in 1953. (Publicity photo: Columbia Pictures).

U.S. Supreme Court rules unanimously that N.J. can depart Waterfront Commission

Decision comes after more than five years of fights over bistate commission

By Joey Fox, April 18 2023 11:10 am

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision this morning allowing New Jersey to unilaterally withdraw from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, ruling against New York’s efforts to force New Jersey to remain in the bistate commission.

The ruling – which was not unexpected – is a major victory for New Jersey after more than five years of legal battles over the commission, which was established 70 years ago to tackle crime along the New York Harbor. Former Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill withdrawing New Jersey from the commission in January 2018, but the state’s efforts to do so have been tangled up in court ever since.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the commission’s original compact does not address withdrawal (or place any prohibitions on it), and that contract law generally supports the ability of one party to withdraw after the circumstances of the contract have changed.

“New York and New Jersey never intended for the Compact and Commission to operate forever,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Given that the States did not intend for the agreement to be perpetual, it would not make much sense to conclude that each State implicitly conferred on the other a perpetual veto of withdrawal.”

Consisting of two commissioners, one appointed by each state’s governor, the Waterfront Commission was created in 1953 in order to crack down on organized crime on the waterfront – a massive concern in that era.

But organized crime today isn’t what it was in the 1950s, meaning that the commission has a brief which is no longer as critical as it once was. What’s more, the balance of the harbor has dramatically shifted in the last 70 years; while around 70% of the harbor’s workforce was located on the New York side in 1953, more than 80% of it is on the New Jersey side today.

In early 2018, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill removing New Jersey from the commission, effectively killing it. The commission, New Jersey’s top politicians argued, was no longer necessary and served as an “impediment to economic growth,” in the words of Gov. Phil Murphy.

New York opposed the move, saying that New Jersey’s exit would invite a return of corruption to the port. A day after Christie signed the 2018 bill, the commission sued to block the withdrawal, and a federal District Court judge ruled in their favor; that ruling was then overturned in the Court of Appeals.

Following the latter decision, New Jersey’s leaders once again announced their intention to withdraw in 2021, and New York once again moved to stop them. The case went to the Supreme Court, where the U.S. Justice Department sided with New Jersey, ultimately leading to today’s ruling allowing New Jersey to leave the commission once and for all. 

The decision is a victory for essentially every New Jersey politician, particularly Murphy, whose entire governorship has overlapped with the lengthy battle. It also is a win for state Solicitor General Jeremy Feigenbaum, who argued New Jersey’s position before the Supreme Court.

“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 after the decision was released. “I am proud that after a five-year battle in the federal courts, where my administration used every legal tool at our disposal, New Jersey’s sovereign right to govern our ports has been vindicated.”

Attorney General Matt Platkin applauded Feigenbaum and his team after winning a five-year court fight.

“Today’s unanimous decision from the United States Supreme Court confirms what we have said from the beginning of the case: New Jersey followed the law when it elected to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission,” Platkin stated.  “Our state’s departure will ensure that the New Jersey State Police, the best in the nation, can appropriately safeguard our Port and ensure security and efficiency in the 21st century.”

This story was updated at 12:20 p.m. with a statement from Murphy and at 6:11 PM with a statement from Platkin.

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