The New Jersey legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures lost a key court battle when a judge ruled on Wednesday that two key figures in the scandal do not have to turn over documents.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson denied the request by the committee to force Bridget Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie (R), and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, to turn over documents in response to subpoenas.
Kelly and Stepien were among the 20 individuals and organizations who received subpoenas in January for the committee, and they both then invoked their Fifth Amendment rights in response to those subpoenas. They had both been tied to the lane closures by their appearance in documents released in January. Kelly, who sent the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” was fired by Christie after the release of the documents. Stepien was asked to leave his role as a consultant to the Republican Governors’ Association, and to take his name out of the running for chairman of New Jersey’s Republican Party.
The committee and lawyers representing Kelly and Stepien went back and forth for weeks before taking the matter before a judge. The committee’s ability to obtain documents from both of them was seen as a crucial measure of its ability to conduct a full investigation.
In her opinion, Jacobson wrote that the issues raised by the committee’s case “require the court to delve into complex areas of law that balance important individual constitutional rights with the investigatory needs of government authorities.”
“With only a few United States Supreme Court decisions as precedents, such case by case analysis in the unusual procedural posture of this case forces the court into largely uncharted waters,” Jacobson wrote. “Nonetheless, this court must wade into these muddy doctrinal waters in order to decide the issues in these cases.”
In response to the ruling, one of the Democrats leading the committee, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), issued a statement saying the committee will now “consult with its counsel and consider its options.”
“The committee felt it was very much in the public interest to seek to compel the production of these documents, but as we’ve said before, there’s more than one method to gather information in an investigation, and we will consider alternatives,” Wisniewski said. “We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power.”
The attorney who represented Stepien in the case, Kevin Marino, offered his own statement in response to the ruling, calling it a “complete vindication of Bill Stepien.”
“Three months ago, this innocent man was banished without cause from positions of trust and respect that he earned through fifteen years of diligence and excellence that made him the finest political consultant in America,” Marino wrote. “The time has come to acknowledge that a mistake was made.”
You can read Jacobson’s full opinion here: