In New York v. New Jersey the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether New Jersey may unilaterally withdraw from the Waterfront Commission Compact.

In 1953, New Jersey and New York entered into this Compact to address the problems of “crime, corruption, and racketeering on the waterfront of the port of New York.” The boundary line between the two states runs through the port. The Compact created the Waterfront Commission, a bi-state agency with the “power to license, register, and regulate . . . waterfront employment.”

New Jersey wanted out of the Compact following a 2009 New York Inspector General “scathing 63-page report outlining the Commission’s misconduct” and because the Commission’s work has declined as the labor force at the port has shrunk due to technological advances. In 2018 the New Jersey legislature voted to withdraw the state from the Compact.

New York sued New Jersey directly in the U.S. Supreme Court claiming that the Court has “original and exclusive” jurisdiction to decide this case because it is a dispute between two states. Near the end of June, the Court granted New York’s request to file its complaint and ordered both sides to file briefs to decide the case without a special master. The Court is likely to hear oral argument and decide this case next term.  

According to New York, New Jersey’s attempt to unilaterally withdraw from the Compact violates the “express terms of the Compact.” New York argues the only way the Compact can be terminated is if both sides agree (or if Congress repeals the Compact).

New York points to article XVI, § 1, of the Compact which requires that changes to it must “be adopted by the action of the Legislature of either State concurred in by the Legislature of the other.” The New York legislature hasn’t passed legislation terminating the Compact.

New Jersey points out that XVI, § 1 covers “amendments.” According to New Jersey, “New York incorrectly responds that the Compact’s prohibition on unilateral amendments must foreclose unilateral withdrawal. But dictionary definitions and ordinary usage confirm that an ‘amendment’ to an agreement, whether a compact or a contract, does not include a decision to ‘withdraw.’”

According to New Jersey, “the drafters did not include any language in the Compact addressing whether either State may withdraw and reclaim its sovereign powers within its borders. That silence proves fatal to New York, because this Court has consistently refused to construe ‘silence’ in an interstate compact to strip the States of pre-compact authorities.”  

New York opines that this case has implications for other interstate compacts. “There are nearly 200 interstate compacts currently in existence governing a diverse array of issues that raise interstate concerns and the need for interstate cooperation—such as law enforcement, transportation, infrastructure, water resources, flood control, and waste management. While some interstate compacts expressly authorize one compacting State to withdraw from the compact unilaterally, many compacts creating interstate agencies do not expressly provide such authority. And some compacts, like the one at issue here, expressly provide that the compact may be altered or amended solely with the mutual agreement of both compacting States.”

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