Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

You hear that the Supreme Court reached a 5-4 decision in the case of Philip Morris USA v. Williams you figure you can name the five, right? What if I told you that this decision, written by Justice Breyer was openly mocked by Justice Stevens? What if I told you that Justice Thomas actually wrote the phrase "I join Justice Ginsburg's dissent in full" -- a dissent which was joined by Justice Scalia? I know, you have to go work on your bomb shelter because the Apocalypse is clearly at hand.
The ruling was that in the trial in Oregon where Philip Morris was forced to pay $79.5 million in punitive damages for selling death sticks, the jury could take into account "reprehensible conduct" covering every smoker who died in Oregon in deciding the guilt, but could not in assessing punitive damages. Justice Stevens pointed out, accurately, I believe, that punitive damages are intended to punish for those reprehensible activities and restricting them just to the individual in the case makes little sense. Justice Stevens cited 5 previous decisions which this case effectively overturned, then, referring to Breyer's differention between when the jury can react to "reprehensible behavior" as a "nuance which eludes me." For those not used to reading Supreme Court dissents (at least those not written by Scalia), that language is downright nasty, worthy of two snaps and an "oh no you didn't" from the observers. Just to add to the overall tone of contempt for the majority, Stevens declared the decision an assault on judicial restraint, no less. Take that, Roberts and Alito.
What causes such odd groupings? Well, it can just be a random arrangement of judges seeing different things. On the other hand, there is something that might bind the majority -- Breyer, while liberal on most individual rights issues, is very pro-business. Roberts and Alito certainly could let their pro-business attitudes overcome their "non-activist" attitudes and their legendary (at least in Roberts' case) respect for precedent. As for Scalia and Thomas, say what you want, they have a clear philosophical attitude regarding what is and isn't in the Constitution. In this case Thomas, quoting himself, says "the Constitution does not constrain the size of punitive damage awards."
So, to summarize, once again activist judges (Roberts and Alito) have ignored the law and all precedent while outvoting those who believe in judicial restraint (Stevens and Ginsberg). Somehow, I don't expect Bush and the religious conservatives (who pray for non-activist judges) to attack this decision.


Blogger samG said...

I'm someone who actually reads major excerpts of important Supreme Court decisions (I'm not sure this one qualifies) including the dissenting opinion. I haven't read this one (yet) but I'm not shocked to see the odd alignment in this case since we've seen it before in cases involving jury instructions or other procedural issues. I think the philosophical line holds when cases involve significant issues of constitutional law such as individual liberties, separation of powers and states rights.

11:22 AM  

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