Supreme Court Crack-Up (and Down with Punitive Damages)

Certain commentators are noting the relative dearth of 5-4 decisions this term after a full third of last year’s cases were decided by that narrowest of margins (with Justice Kennedy in the majority in all of them).  That’s a bit premature, however, as already the last ten days have produced more 5-4 cases than the term leading up to them.  Tomorrow – with the contentious issues of energy deregulation, campaign finance, and, of course, the D.C. gun ban – will no doubt have even more.  They always leave the close cases for the end, folks, and none of today’s four cases were anywhere near unanimous. The two decisions that got all the attention, of course, were Kennedy v. Louisiana (capital child rape) and Exxon v. Baker (punitive damages from the Valdez spill).

I won’t say much about Kennedy, other than that, as he has so, so many times in the past, Justice Kennedy again shamelessly substituted his own policy preferences for the will of the people.  Regardless of one’s views on whether certain types of crimes short of murder (aggravated rape, child rape, treason, etc., etc.) warrant the death penalty, this is an issue properly left to the people and their elected representatives in state legislatures.  We do not pick nine (left alone five) black-robed lawyers to be our moral arbiters, philosopher-kings, or bureaucrats-in chief.  Kennedy versus Louisiana indeed!

As for Exxon, here we have the curious situation on the Court splitting 4-4 (Justice Alito having recused himself for owning Exxon stock) on the question of whether maritime law – the Court was only reviewing issues of federal maritime not constitutional law – permits punitive damages for the acts of agents.  This means that, on that issue, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is summarily affirmed (without setting Supreme Court precedent), a terrible result because the Courts of Appeal are themselves split.  The Court went on, nevertheless and I think properly, by a 5-3 vote to vacate the $2.5 billion punitive damages award because, under maritime common law, punitives should be limited to the amount of compensatory damages (here $507.5 million).  The trial lawyers, as expected, are upset (about losing 80 percent of their contingency fee).  For further comment both on the issue of deadlock-producing recusals and punitive damages, I’ll save pixels here and refer you to my podcast. [Editor: Subscribe already!]

And again, stay tuned tomorrow for D.C. v. Heller (guns, for which my colleague Bob Levy is co-counsel and in which Cato filed an amicus brief), Davis v. FEC (campaign finance, in which we also have a brief), and Morgan Stanley v. Public Utility No.1 (electricity contracts).  The way the opinions have come down, smart money is on Scalia writing Heller (majority or plurarity) and Alito writing Davis.  Note that all three cases were long ago selected for inclusion in this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review.