US Supreme Court Rules NJ Can’t Leave Waterfront Commission

US Supreme Court Rules NJ Can’t Leave Waterfront Commission

In New York v. New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court held that New Jersey can’t withdraw from its Waterfront Commission Compact with New York, at least not yet. The justices granted the State of New York’s motion for preliminary relief, enjoining the State of New Jersey from unilaterally withdrawing from the Compact.

Facts of New York v. New Jersey

New York v. New Jersey is a case of original jurisdiction and, thus, was filed directly with the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue before the justices is whether the Court should issue declaratory judgment and/or enjoin New Jersey from withdrawing from its Waterfront Commission Compact with New York, which grants the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor broad regulatory and law-enforcement powers over all operations at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

In 1953, New Jersey and New York entered into the Waterfront Commission Compact—an agreement to combat problems of “crime, corruption, and racketeering on the waterfront of the port of New York.” In the Compact, the States established the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor (Commission), a bi-state agency authorized to engage in both regulatory and law-enforcement activity on the New Jersey side of the port (relying on New Jersey’s police powers) and the New York side (relying on New York’s).

In 2018, the New Jersey Legislature recognized that the Commission was no longer fulfilling its mission to “investigate, deter, and combat criminal activity and influence in the port” and enacted legislation to facilitate its withdrawal. The Commission filed suit in district court challenging the withdrawal. While a district court enjoined New Jersey from withdrawing, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that New Jersey’s sovereign immunity barred the Commission’s lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, and the district court subsequently lifted its injunction.

On December 27, 2021, New Jersey gave formal notice of withdrawal, which triggered a transfer date of March 28, 2022.  On March 14, 2022, New York filed a motion for leave to file a bill of complaint, complaint, motion for preliminary injunction, and motion to expedite with the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its Motion for Preliminary Relief, New York argued that it would suffer substantial and irreparable harms absent an injunction preserving the status quo at the Port while the Court considers the Motion for Leave to File Bill of Complaint and, if that motion is granted, pending disposition of the case. “New Jersey has stated that it will seek to transfer to its Division of State Police the Commission’s assets and regulatory and law-enforcement powers—sovereign authorities that, under the Compact, belong jointly to New York and New Jersey,” New York argued. “Such actions will not only irreparably harm New York’s sovereign interests but will also likely upend security and stability at the East Coast’s largest port—which has operated as a unified whole for over six decades. Indeed, the exercise of conflicting authority by the New Jersey Division of State Police and the Commission sets the stage for chaos, labor strife, and disruptions to shipping operations.”

In its Brief in Opposition, New Jersey argued that New York’s motion failed on both the merits and the equities. First, New Jersey argued that the Compact permits it to withdraw. “[T]he drafters did not include any language in the Compact addressing whether either State may withdraw and reclaim its sovereign powers within its borders. That silence proves fatal to New York, because this Court has consistently refused to construe ‘silence’ in an interstate compact to strip the States of pre-compact authorities,” New Jersey argued. The State further maintained that the equities favor allowing it to withdraw, citing “[t]here is a good reason why New Jersey has been diligently trying to withdraw from the Compact for four years: the Commission has become ineffectual.”

Supreme Court’s Decision in New York v. New Jersey

On March 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court granted New York’s motion for preliminary relief. Its brief unsigned order stated: “New Jersey is hereby enjoined from enforcing Chapter 324 or taking action to withdraw unilaterally from the Compact or terminate the Commission pending disposition of the motion for leave to file a bill of complaint and, if granted, disposition of the case.”

The Supreme Court is likely to consider the full merits of the case next term.

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