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NJ vs. NY: What Supreme Court’s Port Call Means for Cargo, Cops and Crime

A Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday marks the end of an era for law enforcement at the Port of New York and New Jersey, one of the nation’s busiest cargo gateways.

A 9-0 vote unanimously found that New Jersey can withdraw from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a dual-state pact with New York conceived in 1953 to crack down on organized crime, racketeering and corrupt dockworker hiring practices.

The cross-Hudson dispute has raged on since New Jersey lawmakers voted in 2018 to end their participation in the commission. Garden State state officials and union workers said the commission’s outdated structure hampered efficient operations, hamstrung hiring and left the port ill-equipped to handle 21st century security challenges.

New York countered by insisting criminals still try to influence port hiring and operations and said the two states had to mutually agree on the terms of withdrawal.

Unions affected by the decision lined up in favor of New Jersey, with International Longshoremen’s Association president Harold Daggett saying he was “extremely happy” with the high court’s decision.

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“The Waterfront Commission long ago abandoned its original purpose, and instead took advantage of the fact that it had no oversight by the New Jersey state government,” Daggett said. “The Commission has used this unfettered power to advance the interests of its own employees, while hurting the hiring and economic needs of the Port. Also, the Commission even began interfering in the collective bargaining rights of port workers. Worst of all, the Commission made a habit of harassing and retaliating against the honest, hardworking women and men of the ILA, purely because they exercised their federally guaranteed right to be a member of a union.”

The Shipping Association of New York & New Jersey threw its support behind New Jersey’s move to withdraw in February 2022, with president John Nardi saying he “looks forward to assisting the New Jersey State Police in the transition from the Waterfront Commission and whichever entity New York selects to oversee their port oversight.”

The association, formerly known as The New York Shipping Association, changed its name last September to include both states.

After it officially leaves, New Jersey plans to transition the Waterfront Commission’s law enforcement and regulatory responsibilities to the New Jersey State Police, while New York has yet to establish which organization will oversee these areas in its own jurisdiction.

The Commission currently has its own police division, but also cooperates with state, federal, and local law enforcement authorities to investigate waterfront-related crimes.

The original compact entered into by the two states in 1953 to form the commission did not address each state’s power to withdraw from the compact.

“We draw further guidance from the fact that, as is undisputed, New York and New Jersey never intended for the Compact and Commission to operate forever,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the case’s opinion. “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.”

The port of yesteryear looks very different from what’s happening on the docks today, Kavanaugh wrote in his nine-page opinion, noting that roughly 70 percent of waterfront employees worked on the New York side of the facility in 1953. By 2018, however, the script had flipped, with New Jersey handling more than 80 percent of work hours and 80 percent of the cargo.

The case faced several lower court decision before the Supreme Court agreed to hear it.

New York’s leaders were frustrated by the decision.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow New Jersey to unilaterally withdraw from the Waterfront Commission,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James in a joint statement. “For decades, the Waterfront Commission has been a vital law enforcement agency, protecting essential industries at the port and cracking down on organized crime. We will continue to do everything in our power to combat corruption and crime, protect the health of our economy, and ensure the safety of New Yorkers.”

On the other side of the Hudson River, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was “thrilled” with the high court’s ruling.

“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. “Over 90 percent of commerce at our ports happens on the New Jersey side, and the New Jersey State Police, one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the nation, is more than capable of taking on the Commission’s law enforcement and regulatory responsibilities. For many years, frustration over the Commission’s operations has been building. 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.”

The new uncertainty surrounding law enforcement at the complex comes amid an influx of cargo being rerouted east amid the West Coast’s lengthy labor contract negotiations.

Overseen by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the five metro area ports moved 571,177 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo in February, beating West Coast rivals such as the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach by about 83,000 TEUs and 27,000 TEUs, respectively.

Through the year’s first two months, 1.22 million total TEUs were processed through the New York/New Jersey ports, a 20.2 percent dip from the year prior.

The complex handled a record-breaking 9.5 million TEUs last year to become the country’s second busiest. For the four-month period between August 2022 and November 2022, it was U.S.-bound cargo’s No. 1 port of call.