Today, when questioning the first panel of witnesses for the Elena Kagan confirmation, Senator Jon Kyl decided not to ask questions, but simply to attack those who had agreed to testify.
Instead of, say, listening to the witnesses, or even ignoring them, he accused three witnesses testifying about sex discrimination, age discrimination, and the devastating impact of the Exxon Valdez spill of demanding a Justice who would rule for them. All they wanted, he claimed, was “results oriented judging.”
He didn’t give them a chance to answer the accusation, so maybe we can answer for them.
No, Senator Kyl, all we want is a Justice who will follow the law.
In Ledbetter, the Court read the law in a cramped and unnatural way in order to limit the right of women to sue for discrimination. In Gross, the Court arbitrarily changed the standard used to determine discrimination on the basis of age. And in Exxon v. Baker, the Court invented a limit on punitive damages out of whole cloth—the ruling was so bad that even the Heritage Foundation thought it was judicial activism.
In the Ledbetter, Gross and Exxon cases, the Court went out of its way to side with corporations and defend them from people who were trying to hold them accountable.
Remind me again, Senator Kyl: what’s the definition of “results oriented judging?”
As BP begins a risky attempt to stem its still-leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil starts to lap against the shores of the Gulf Coast, lawsuits against the oil giant have begun. The devastating oil spill has already surpassed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, and the litigation that follows it is sure to be just as contentious and lengthy. Two years ago, 19 years after the Valdez spill, the tens of thousands of victims of the disaster saw their case end up before the Supreme Court…and the Court gave Exxon Mobil a huge handout. While the facts this time are different and the legal issues won’t be exactly the same, if their case ends up before the high court, victims of the BP spill will have a legitimate reason to worry –the Roberts Court has displayed a clear willingness to go out of its way to keep individual citizens from holding big oil accountable.
In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker carrying over a million barrels of crude oil crashed off the coast of Alaska, spilling at least ten million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound. The spill destroyed wildlife habitats and the livelihoods of fishermen up and down the Northwest coast. Those affected by the spill entered into years of litigation to try to recover from Exxon some of what they had lost. In 1994, a jury awarded the 32,677 plaintiffs in the case $5 billion in punitive damages. An appeals court judge halved the amount to $2.5 billion.
[E]ven this pared-down judgment was way too much for Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Souter and Scalia. In 2008, this bloc reduced the punitive damage award from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. Indeed, the only thing that stopped them from deleting the award altogether was that they were one vote short of being able to find that a corporation is not responsible for the reckless acts of its own managers acting in the scope of their employment.
What the 5-justice majority found, over the objections of dissenting liberal justices who accused them of legislating from the bench, was that it would impose in maritime tort cases a 1-1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages—a formula found nowhere in the statute and essentially pulled out of a hat made by a big corporation. In dissent, Justice Stevens chastised the majority for interpreting the "congressional choice not to limit the availability of punitive damages under maritime law" as "an invitation to make policy judgments on the basis of evidence in the public domain that Congress is better able to evaluate than is this Court."
But Exxon, which amazingly ended up making money on the spill because of the resulting increase in oil prices, got its way with a corporate-leaning Court and ended up paying punitive damages equal to a day or two of company profits.
Not surprisingly, the lawsuits from those who are losing their livelihoods have begun. As of May 21, more than 130 had been filed.
Lawsuits against BP will no doubt involve millions, and probably billions of dollars in both compensatory and punitive damages. While compensatory damages are essential to helping victims recover from a disaster of this size, punitive damages serve to dissuade the company and others like it from acting recklessly in the future. The Roberts Court’s willingness to invent a rule capping punitive damages against Exxon doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to hold BP accountable for this disaster and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The Court has a responsibility to ensure that ordinary people get treated fairly, even when pitted against big corporations—but the current Supreme Court has made it clear that we can’t always count on that.
This disaster is a tragic reminder of why we need Justices who won’t favor the interests of the powerful over the rights of ordinary citizens.
People For and a coalition of progressive groups will run a full page ad in the Washington Post next week, criticizing the Supreme Court’s increasing deference to corporate interests. The ad, which pictures judicial robes embroidered with the logos of large corporations and asks “Is the Supreme Court Corporate America’s newest subsidiary?,” was released today.
The corporate sympathies of the current Supreme Court majority—displayed in cases like Citizens United v. FEC and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company—have shaken Americans across the political spectrum. Last month, a People For report documented the Court’s 10-year pro-corporate trend, and the emergence of a “corporate bloc” on the Court.
The ad lays out some of the most startling rulings of the Roberts Court:
The United States Supreme Court was founded to protect the American people, not American big business.
Yet recent rulings have allowed corporations to get away with paying women less than men, discriminating against the rights of older workers, dodging liability for faulty medical devices, ducking the Clean Water Act and avoid paying damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Most alarmingly, the Court has also just declared that corporations have the same rights as people, with unlimited rights to pour money into electing corporate candidates who will protect their interests.
A poll commissioned by the groups that released the ad—People For, Alliance for Justice, and MoveOn.org—found that the majority of Americans agree that the Supreme Court favors big corporations over individuals, and want a new Justice who will not be part of that trend.