“So what can a corporation do to protect itself against punitive-damages awards such as this?” Roberts asked in court.
The lawyer arguing for the Alaska fishermen affected by the spill, Jeffrey Fisher, had an idea. “Well,” he said, “it can hire fit and competent people.”
No one who’d been following the almost-20-year-long fight for justice over the Exxon Valdez oil spill was really terribly surprised by the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, especially if they followed the coverage of the oral arguments back in February. The plaintiff’s attorney, law professor Jeffrey Fisher, seemed to be in enemy territory:
“What you have today are 32,000 plaintiffs standing before this court, each of whom have received only $15,000 for having their lives and livelihood destroyed and haven’t received a dime of emotional-distress damages,” Fisher argued.
Several justices, however, seemed more concerned about the emotional distress of the Exxon executives. “I assume the test is the person has to be high enough that it justifies holding the entire corporation” responsible,” Antonin Scalia said, “and I doubt whether a captain is high enough.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, wagging his finger at Fisher as he challenged the lawyer’s argument, charged that “the corporation’s responsibility or complicity or culpability is simply not relevant under your theory of the case.”
Roberts seemed the most agitated as he argued that Exxon wasn’t responsible for the captain’s unauthorized drunkenness. “I don’t see what more a corporation can do,” he said. “What more can the corporation do other than say ‘Here is our policies’ and try to implement them?”
In an opinion from the SCOTUSBLOG, Richard Garbarini points out not only the extreme advantage this ruling hands to corporate America but that this ruling is a direct interference with the role of the jury.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Garbarini was “the co-author of an Amicus Brief filed on behalf of the ship masters and expert mariners Captains Mitchell Stoller, Joseph Ahlstrom, Roger Johnson, John Scott Merill and Tom Trosvig in support of respondents.”
Today’s opinion, is, at its heart, judicial activism at its worst. Justice Souter, writing for the majority, found that “[t]he common sense of justice would surely bar penalties that reasonable people would think excessive for the harm caused in the circumstances.” While the Court agrees that most punitive damages award are assessed by a jury of presumed reasonable people and reviewed by a judge, the Court still somehow finds this process unreasonable.
The decision is also not founded in maritime law. Maritime law is a creature of federal statute and statutory construction. As Justice Stevens so aptly stated in his dissent, “in light of the many statutes governing liability under admiralty law, the absence of any limitation on an award of the sort at issue in this case suggests that Congress would not wish to create a new rule restricting the liability of a wrongdoer like Exxon.” Here the Court has inserted its judgment for the sound reasoning of juries, the informed review of judges and the intent of Congress.
While the status of “Roe v Wade” is important, it was used as a smokescreen–a distraction from other personal beliefs and judicial history during the appointment process of the most recent Supreme Court justices. While a few of us were flailing our arms around trying to point out the pro-business stances of the majority of the Court, we seemed to be ignored.
In the Exxon Valdez ruling, there were only 3 dissenting opinons and one abstention…by Justice Alito who owns a ton of Exxon stock AND who was STILL allowed to participate in the oral arguments. SCOTUS has a clear pro-business majority to the point of usurping everyone else.
This should be a extremely important issue when McCain surrogates try to woo independents with the “John McCain is a maverick” fallacy. His stance on judges is anything but maverick, as was reported by the National Review when a rumor was going around claiming McCain didn’t like Alito:
“Let me just look you in the eye,” McCain told me. “I’ve said a thousand times on this campaign trail, I’ve said as often as I can, that I want to find clones of Alito and Roberts. I worked as hard as anybody to get them confirmed. I look you in the eye and tell you I’ve said a thousand times that I wanted Alito and Roberts. I have told anybody who will listen. I flat-out tell you I will have people as close to Roberts and Alito [as possible], and I am proud of my record of working to get them confirmed, and people who worked to get them confirmed will tell you how hard I worked.”
Obama already has his work cut out for him if he wins the election. If McCain were to win, this country will be owned by the corporations for decades to come.