By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a citizen's criminal complaint against Governor Chris Christie over the "Bridgegate" scandal but ordered a lower court to review it to determine whether the case should continue.
Bergen County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Mizdol rejected Christie's request to toss the complaint outright. But she agreed with both Christie's lawyers and county prosecutors that a lower court judge erroneously denied the governor's attorney an opportunity to participate in a prior hearing in October.
The complaint was filed in September by Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter and activist who recently announced he would run for governor this year.
Brennan accused Christie of knowing about a plot to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in order to punish a local mayor for failing to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
Two former Christie allies were convicted last year of orchestrating the plot, and U.S. prosecutors introduced evidence at trial suggesting the governor was at least aware of the scheme. Christie, who has not been charged by prosecutors, has steadfastly denied that he knew about the closures at the time.
Roy McGeady, a municipal judge in Fort Lee, where Brennan's complaint was filed, found probable cause to allow the case to proceed after a hearing at which Brennan testified. Christie's lawyer was not permitted to argue or cross-examine, McGeady said, because the governor was not a defendant until probable cause was established.
That, Mizdol said on Thursday, was wrong under the law and requires a new hearing.
"Defendant was improperly denied counsel at a critical stage," she wrote.
A spokesman for Christie did not respond to a request for comment.
"Christie's attorneys committed an epic strategic blunder in moving to dismiss these charges," Brennan said in an email. "They lost in Superior Court and the are losing in the court of public opinion; the truth will prevail."
It was not immediately clear when the new hearing would take place. If McGeady again finds probable cause, the case moves to the Bergen County Prosecutor's office to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant filing charges against Christie.
Legal experts have said the governor is unlikely to face criminal prosecution.
But the scandal has been a political disaster for Christie, who abandoned his own presidential bid and was passed over by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump for an administration post.
Christie is barred from running for re-election this year due to term limits.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman)