(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Monday, April 07, 2003

Supreme Court
Three decisions from the Supreme Court today:

(1) Pacificare v. Book. I said, before the argument, that the Court would reverse either on outrageous grounds (that the company was allowed to insulate itself from punitive/treble damages by "contract") or on not-outrageous grounds (that the meaning of the contract was unclear and so should be interpreted by an arbitrator in the first instance). The Court picked the not-outrageous grounds, and that's good.

(2) Virginia v. Black, the cross-burning case, in which the Court seems to have held that a state can ban cross-burning when it's done with an intent to intimidate, and that such a law doesn't violate the First Amendment, but that the Virginia statute might or might not go too far in saying that there doesn't need to be any evidence of such intent beyond the cross-burning itself. I'm not even sure I've got that right; the decision is a mess.

(3) State Farm v. Campbell, which strikes me as a true outrage when compared to the Court's decisions a few weeks ago on the California three strikes cases. We know now that, according to this Court, putting someone in jail for 25-to-life for stealing a few golf clubs is JUST PEACHY, but that punishing a company with a $145 million penalty for a $ 1 million tort is WAY TOO DRACONIAN AND THEREFORE UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!! [updated insert: indeed, the majority even says that in nearly all cases, a punishment that was even just more than 10 times the compensatory award would be unconstitutional. Try squaring that with 25-to-life for some golf clubs worth about $1000 dollars!] Give credit, at least, to Justices Thomas and Scalia, who are consistent in their view that in neither sort of case does the severity of the punishment amount to a constitutional issue. And, though I recognize the argument that the criminal cases are different because there the punishments were set by statute rather than by a jury, I don't accept that distinction as a good enough basis for such a major difference in treatment; after all, if juries are allowed to decide whether people should be put to death for their crimes, aren't they also qualified to decide whether companies should be popped with big punitive damage awards? [update: I had predicted that the Court would not embarrass itself by reaching such different and irreconcilable results in the State Farm case and the Three Strikes cases. I was wrong.]

posted by sam 11:08 AM 0 comments


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