[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] handed down four decisions Wednesday, including Exxon v. Baker [Duke Law backgrounder; JURIST report], in which the Court ruled 5-3 to reduce a punitive damages award to be paid by Exxon Mobil [corporate website] for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill [EPA backgrounder] from $2.5 billion to $500 million. Exxon Mobil and its shipping subsidiary had been ordered to pay punitive damages for the spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The award was larger than the total of all punitive damages awards affirmed by all federal appellate courts in US history. The Court found that punitive damages should be predictable based on the harm done:
Our review of punitive damages today, then, considers not their intersection with the Constitution, but the desirability of regulating them as a common law remedy for which responsibility lies with this Court as a source of judge-made law in the absence of statute. Whatever may be the constitutional significance of the unpredictability of high punitive awards, this feature of happenstance is in tension with the function of the awards as punitive, just because of the implication of unfairness that an eccentrically high punitive verdict carries in a system whose commonly held notion of law rests on a sense of fairness in dealing with one another. Thus, a penalty should be reasonably predictable in its severity, so that even Justice Holmes's "bad man" can look ahead with some ability to know what the stakes are in choosing one course of action or another.
In December 2006, the Ninth Circuit reduced [JURIST report] Exxon's original $5 billion punitive damage award by over $2 billion, ruling [PDF, text] that the award was excessive in light of a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling that punitive damages must be reasonable and proportionate to the harm incurred. The Court also considered the cleanup and compensation efforts already made by Exxon. When the Court granted certiorari [JURIST report] in October, it agreed to consider three questions presented [PDF text] by the appeal, but declined to hear a claim that the verdict was excessive under the Constitution's Due Process Clause [text] and a cross appeal to reinstate the initial $5 billion damages award. Read the Court's opinion per Justice Souter, a concurrence filed by Justice Scalia and joined by Justice Thomas, a concurrence in part and dissent in part filed by Justice Stevens, a concurrence in part and dissent in part filed by Justice Ginsburg, and a concurrence in part and dissent in part [texts] filed by Justice Breyer. Justice Alito recused himself from taking part in the case as he owns Exxon stock. AP has more.
The Court also ruled 5-4 in Kennedy v. Louisiana [Duke Law backgrounder; JURIST report] that a death sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment when imposed for a crime in which the victim was not killed. Patrick Kennedy was sentenced to death in Louisiana for raping a minor, one of the few remaining crimes where the death of a victim is not required for the death penalty. The Court found that in cases where the victim was not killed, the death penalty fails to serve "deterrent or retributive" purposes invoked for its use:
The rule of evolving standards of decency with specific marks on the way to full progress and mature judgment means that resort to the
penalty must be reserved for the worst of crimes and limited in its instances of application. In most cases justice is not better served by terminating the life of the perpetrator rather than confining him and preserving the possibility that he and the system will find ways to allow him to understand the enormity of his offense. Difficulties in administering the penalty to ensure against its arbitrary and capricious application require adherence to a rule reserving its use, at this stage of evolving standards and in cases of crimes against individuals, for crimes that take the life of the victim.
The decision reversed and remanded a holding [PDF text] by the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Read the Court's opinion per Justice Kennedy, and a dissent [texts] filed by Justice Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas. AP has more.
In Giles v. California [Duke Law backgrounder; JURIST report], the Court ruled 6-3 that a criminal defendant can block the testimony of the person he allegedly killed if he did not kill her with the specific intent of preventing the witness from testifying. Dwayne Giles was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of his ex-girlfriend. He asserted that the killing was committed in self-defense, but the California court trying him admitted as evidence statements that the victim had previously given police that Giles had threatened to kill her. The Court accepted Giles' argument that allowing the previous statements as evidence violated his constitutional rights under the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause [LII backgrounder], ruling that it "decline[d] to approve an exception to the Confrontation Clause unheard of at the time of the founding or for 200 years thereafter." The decision vacated and remanded a holding [PDF text] by the Supreme Court of California. Read the Court's opinion per Justice Scalia, a dissent filed by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Stevens and Kennedy, a concurrence filed by Justice Thomas, a concurrence filed by Justice Alito, and a concurrence [texts] filed by Justice Souter. AP has more.
In Plains Commerce v. Long Family Land and Cattle [Duke Law backgrounder; JURIST report], the Court ruled that Indian tribes’ courts do not have jurisdiction to decide a case between a business owned by tribe members and a bank that owns land within a reservation but that is not owned by tribe members. Applying "the general rule that tribes do not possess authority over non-Indians who come within their borders," the Court reversed an Eighth Circuit holding [PDF text]. Read the Court's opinion per Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurrence in part and dissent in part [text], concurring in the judgment in part, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer.