The U. S. Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily halted New Jersey’s plans to unilaterally shut down an agency that has policed the busy ports around New York City for nearly 70 years in an effort to stem organized crime’s influence.
The court’s order came in response to a lawsuit filed by New York officials seeking to block a push by their New Jersey counterparts to disband the agency, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which was formed in 1953 via a bistate compact.
New Jersey officials argue that the commission — a product of the “On the Waterfront” era, when the mob exerted major control over the local docks and the unions that work them — has become obsolete. New York officials disagree.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey had vowed to pull the state’s representative off the commission by next week, a move that would leave the agency unable to operate and end its seven-decade run of fighting to keep the mob off the docks.
Moving to head off the shutdown, New York took the rare legal step of seeking the intervention of the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction in disputes between states.
In its ruling, the court granted New York’s demand for an injunction that bars New Jersey from pulling out of the commission or cutting off its funding while the justices consider the matter, leaving two states that are usually allies in an unusual standoff.
Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, a Democrat like Mr. Murphy, hailed the court’s order, saying in a statement that it was “a victory for the safety of New Yorkers and for the health of our economy.” She added that the commission’s work “in combating crime at the port and protecting vital industries is more important than ever before.”
Mr. Murphy expressed disappointment at the ruling, but expressed confidence that New Jersey’s decision to shut down the agency would be vindicated.
“I will not give up the fight to protect New Jersey’s interests, which are poorly served by a commission that operates without transparency and has long outlived its usefulness,” he said in a statement.
Phoebe S. Sorial, the agency’s general counsel, said: “We are very pleased with the court’s decision.”
The New York Harbor port system is the busiest on the East Coast and ranks third behind the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., in terms of cargo traffic. More than 90 percent of the port activity is on the New Jersey side of the harbor.
The commission was born after public hearings in the early 1950s revealed organized crime’s pervasive influence over the ports at the time. It performs background checks on prospective port workers and has the power to decide how many can be hired and when. In more recent years, it has also used its power to demand that waterfront unions diversify their ranks, which have traditionally been dominated by white men.
Fighting corruption remains a key focus. Several years ago, the commission investigated and helped prosecute union officials, shop stewards and foremen over a conspiracy to extort their own union members on behalf of the Genovese crime family.
Nonetheless, the commission’s critics argue that it has become obsolete because the mob’s control of the docks ended long ago and that the agency is stifling economic growth by making hiring too difficult.
In addition to New Jersey officials, the critics include the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents most workers at the ports, and the New York Shipping Association, whose members operate the terminals where huge cargo ships are unloaded.
Sympathetic to the complaints, Chris Christie, Mr. Murphy’s Republican predecessor, signed legislation intended to dissolve the commission in one of his last acts as governor. After Mr. Murphy took office, the commission sued him in federal court, arguing that New Jersey could not unilaterally dismantle an agreement between the two states that Congress had blessed.
The agency won that legal round, but lost when New Jersey appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. At that point, the commission itself asked the Supreme Court to consider the case, which it declined to do last year.
That led Mr. Murphy to announce his plans to effectively disband the agency by withdrawing New Jersey’s lone commissioner as of March 28 and ordering the State Police to take over the agency’s duties. The shipping association, which pays fees that provide most of the agency’s budget, said it would stop doing so at the same time.
New York responded with its last-ditch legal maneuver.
The last high-profile tangle between the two states happened 30 years ago when New Jersey sued New York over ownership of Ellis Island near the Statue of Liberty.