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Future of Agency Created to Keep Mob Off Docks Now Up to Supreme Court

A simmering feud over the future of an agency created 70 years ago to break organized crime’s grip on the cargo ports in and around New York City took an unusual turn on Monday when New York asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

The rare legal maneuver by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, was a last-ditch bid to halt New Jersey’s plans to dissolve the agency, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which the two states established together in 1953.

New Jersey officials, saying the commission had outlived its usefulness, have been trying for several years to withdraw from the bistate compact that governs it and to shift its enforcement authority to the State Police.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said previously that he planned to pull the state’s representative off the commission this month. Such a move would render the agency unable to operate and end its seven-decade run of fighting to keep the mob off the local docks.

Ms. James, who sought the Supreme Court’s intervention because it has ultimate jurisdiction over disputes between states, said in a statement that “New Jersey’s attempt to terminate this commission is unlawful, ill-advised, and infringes on our efforts to crack down on crime.”

In a statement issued by his office, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, responded to New York’s legal filing by saying his state welcomed “the opportunity to vigorously defend its law withdrawing the state from” an agency that he said “does not fairly represent New Jersey’s interests.”

The commission was born after public hearings in the early 1950s revealed the pervasive influence that mobsters had 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. It has also used its power in more recent years to demand that waterfront unions add diversity to membership ranks that 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 organized crime family.

In 2019, a joint investigation by the commission and New Jersey’s attorney general led to the sentencing of six men for their roles in criminal schemes that involved loansharking, illegal gambling and money-laundering on behalf of the Genovese family.

Nonetheless, the commission’s critics argue that it is obsolete because the mob’s control of the region’s docks ended long ago. Those 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.

It was then that Mr. Murphy notified the commission that the state would be withdrawing its commissioner on March 28 of this year. The shipping association, which pays fees that provide most of the agency’s budget, said it would stop doing so at the same time.

But New York officials have strenuously resisted the efforts to disband the commission, and the rare step they took on Monday showed how strong their objections are. The last high-profile tangle between the two states was 30 years ago when New Jersey sued New York over ownership of Ellis Island near the Statue of Liberty.

In a statement, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat like Mr. Murphy and Ms. James, the attorney general, said that New York “cannot afford to lose the waterfront commission’s unique authority and expertise in combating crime.”

Terminating the agency, she added, “would cause immediate and irreparable harm to New York state, from increased crime to higher prices to employment inequities.”

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