NJ pushes fight over waterfront commission

NJ pushes fight over waterfront commission

An appeal filed by New Jersey officials could determine how much power the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor has to perform watchdog and oversight duties in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Photo credit: Hugh R. Morley.



New Jersey is continuing its fight to withdraw the state from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor and reduce the commission’s power to conduct criminal investigations, background checks, and other oversight in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Attorneys for Gov. Phil Murphy and the state legislature have appealed a federal judge’s May 30 dismissal of a state law enacted in January 2018 that would have required those functions to be performed on the New Jersey side of the port by state police.

The appeal, for which Murphy and the legislators must file their arguments by Sept. 17, revives the court dispute over the commission’s activities, and whether New Jersey can take on many of the watchdog agency’s responsibilities. The state is the location of the port’s four biggest terminals, through which 90 percent of its containerized cargo passes.

Contentious history

The court case is latest battleground over the commission’s work, with participants in the dispute — through court cases, legislation, and public statements arguing that the work of the commission impacts the cargo that flows through the port.

Opponents of the commission, which include the New York Shipping Association (NYSA) and International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), accuse the body of overstepping its authority to combat crime on the docks and say the commission’s effort to oversee hiring in the port causes delays and disruption. The Waterfront Commission an independent, bi-state agency with two commissioners, one each appointed by New York and New Jersey says its work is necessary, and it is merely carrying out its responsibility to fight racketeering that can increase costs in the port, and ensure fair hiring, in part by promoting diversity.

The appeal comes five months after the NYSA and the commission agreed on a framework in which the port could hire 650 longshore workers and checkers to fill vacancies in new and existing positions due to retirements and the port’s mid-single-digit cargo growth. About 120 have been hired so far, and another 100 are ready to be hired, according to the NYSA.

Bi-state compact

The May 30 decision by US District Court Judge Susan D. Wigenton, sitting in Newark, New Jersey, backed a lawsuit seeking to strike down a law signed by then-governor Chris Christie that required the transfer of the commission’s responsibilities to conduct criminal investigations, fight organized crime, and perform background checks on longshore workers and other port workers to the state police.

Wigenton agreed with the commission’s arguments that New Jersey could not unilaterally withdraw from the agency, which was created by a compact approved by Congress in 1953. The commission has long argued that the states can withdraw only if both pass identical legislation approving the change. While New Jersey approved such a law in January 2018, New York has not.

Attorneys for the New Jersey legislature, who informed the court on June 26 of their intent to appeal, say in court papers they will raise issues, including whether the judge failed to recognize New Jersey’s “sovereign prerogative” to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission Compact. 

The appeal will also focus on whether the commission went through the proper process in hiring the counsel who filed the initial suit, especially given only one of the commission's two board trustees voted to pursue the suit, the court papers show. The second trustee, the representative from New Jersey, said he was not asked to support the suit.

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.