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New Jersey Wins at SCOTUS in NY Harbor Case

All nine justices sided with New Jersey Tuesday when it unanimously ruled Tuesday that the Garden State could leave a 1950s agreement it made with New York to combat waterfront corruption on the docks.

Some background on a NY/NJ feud with decades-old seeds:

The two states got together in 1953 and created the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor (the "Commission"). The Commission would go on to regulate the Port of New York and New Jersey, which is the 700+ miles of navigable waterways along the shoreline of New York City including 25-mile radius encircling the Statue of Liberty. As of August 2022, the region is the busiest port in the world.

New Jersey has been trying to get out of its agreement with New York for years. It attempted to dissolve the Commission in 2018, but then-Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed legislation that would have done so. New York, on the other hand, argues that New Jersey has to keep up with the Commission until both states agree to end it.

In his relatively brief opinion for the Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh recapped what's changed at the waterfront since the time of Marlon Brando:

The Compact and Commission have operated for 70 years. But as the decades have passed, circumstances at the Port have changed. In 1953, roughly 70% of waterfront employees worked on the New York side of the Port. But by 2018, according to New Jersey, more than 80% of work hours occurred on the New Jersey side, and more than 80% of the Port’s cargo flowed through the New Jersey side. New Jersey also came to view the Commission as ill equipped to handle 21st-century security challenges and as a source of overregulation that impedes job growth.

Kavanaugh explained that because the written compact was silent on the rules of withdrawal, the justices needed to "look to background principles of law" for guidance on the matter.

Ultimately, the Court was convinced that a trio of factors weighed in favor of New Jersey's being permitted to withdraw: 1) standard principles of contract law; 2) standard principles of state sovereignty; and 3) the intentions of both states when they first entered into the agreement in 1953.

Because neither state "ever intended the Compact and Commission to operate forever," Kavanaugh and the Court found that New Jersey could legally withdraw even without New York's permission.

Kavanaugh addressed New York's argument that the Compact should be considered a treaty-- and thus, permanent until all parties wish to end it.

Kavanaugh essentially responded, "not so fast." The justice said that even scholars disagree on whether nations may unilaterally withdraw from things they know to be treaties. Although some authorities — such as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties — do not allow a party to withdraw from a treaty without authorization from other parties, it's not a universal rule (and even if it were, the United States isn't even a party). Sometimes, rather, the nature of a particular treaty may imply a right of unilateral withdrawal.

Bottom line: because the treaty comparison does not answer the question of New Jersey's right to withdraw and other factors weigh in favor of the Garden State, New Jersey can leave, no matter what New York thinks about it all.

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