Senate obstructionism has so crippled one agency that the Supreme Court has ruled invalid over 500 decisions it made over a two-year period.
The National Labor Relations Board, meant to consist of five members, has a statutory quorum of three. But, from the end of 2007 through this March, it operated with just two members. A steel company contested a decision that the two-member board made, saying the board’s decisions weren’t valid without a three-person quorum, and the Supreme Court today agreed.
The question of whether the Supreme Court made the right decision aside (the court, along a 5-4 divide, quibbled about the intent of the statute governing the NLRB), it’s a pretty startling example of the real impact of the Senate’s stalling on executive appointments.
In fact, President Obama finally broke the NRLB’s gridlock in March when he bypassed the Senate to make two recess appointments to the board…after Chief Justice Roberts had urged him to do so in the case’s oral arguments.
By our count, there is currently a backlog of 96 executive nominees waiting for Senate floor votes. A situation like the NRLB’s is extreme, and rare. But it’s a reminder that while the Senate holds up nominees to make political points, there is important work being left undone.
The American Foundation for Equal Rights has posted a transcript of yesterday's closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the trial challenging the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage. Theodore B. Olson, the attorney for the couples who are challenging the ban, went straight for the definition of marriage and what it means to individuals and to society.
Here are some excerpts from his closing arguments:
I think it's really important to set forth the prism through which this case must be viewed by the judiciary. And that is the perspective on marriage, the same subject that we're talking about, by the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court -- the freedom to marry, the freedom to make the choice to marry. The Supreme Court has said in -- I counted 14 cases going back to 1888, 122 years. And these are the words of all of those Supreme Court decisions about what marriage is.
And I set forth this distinction between what the plaintiffs have called it and what the Supreme Court has called it. The Supreme Court has said that: Marriage is the most important relation in life. Now that's being withheld from the plaintiffs. It is the foundation of society. It is essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. It's a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights and older than our political parties. One of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause. A right of intimacy to the degree of being sacred. And a liberty right equally available to a person in a homosexual relationship as to heterosexual persons. That's the Lawrence vs. Texas case.
Marriage, the Supreme Court has said again and again, is a component of liberty, privacy, association, spirituality and autonomy. It is a right possessed by persons of different races, by persons in prison, and by individuals who are delinquent in paying child support.
I think it's really important, given what the Supreme Court has said about marriage and what the proponents said about marriage, to hear what the plaintiffs have said about marriage and what it means to them, in their own words.
They have said that marriage means -- and this means not a domestic partnership. This means marriage, the social institution of marriage that is so valuable that the Supreme Court says it's the most important relation in life. The plaintiffs have said that marriage means to them freedom, pride. These are their words. Dignity. Belonging. Respect. Equality. Permanence. Acceptance. Security. Honor. Dedication. And a public commitment to the world.
One of the plaintiffs said, "It's the most important decision you make as an adult." Who could disagree with that?
On the one hand, we have the proponents' argument that it's all about procreation and institutionalizing -- deinstitutionalizing marriage, but was not supported by credible evidence. I couldn't find it. That's the one hand.
On the other stands the combined weight of 14 Supreme Court opinions about marriage and the liberty and the privacy of marriage. The testimony of the plaintiffs, about their life and how they are affected by Proposition 8, and the combined expertise of the leading experts in the world, as far as we were able to find. It is no contest.
A few weeks ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter delivered a call to arms against the misguided theory of “constitutional originalism” that has dominated recent debates on the Supreme Court. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” Souter said, “Not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.”
Souter’s argument has started a robust and refreshing conversation about keeping faith with the Constitution …. and debunking the notion of justices as constitutional umpires who have to simply stand at the plate and call objective balls and strikes.
Constitutional law professor Alain L. Sanders weighed in today with an interesting take on what a literal adherence to the Constitution as originally written —sure to be invoked in the upcoming hearings on Elena Kagan’s nomination— would mean:
The political oratory will be enticing to many, and sound astute, learned and even well-grounded. But much of it will be misleading, wrong-headed, and unsupported by logic, history, or the principles of the Constitution. A simple examination of the Senate confirmation proceedings themselves illuminates the fallacies of the conservative assault.
Sitting on the Senate Judiciary panel will be California's Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar. To any and all true-blue strict constructionists, the presence of these two women legislators ought immediately to sound the alarm of unconstitutionality and invalidate the entire confirmation process. The Constitution states clearly, directly and consistently throughout its many provisions that federal officials are to be men.
Sanders’ argument brought to mind some other great riffs on Souter’s speech that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. These articles are all worth a read:
The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and UVA professor Jim Ryan argued that adherence to the full text and history of the Constitution – including all of its amendments - is something that progressives can and should embrace:
We live in an era thick with conservative nostalgia for the "original" Constitution and the ideas of our founding, even when those ideas have been repudiated or modified by subsequent constitutional amendments. Kagan would be doing the entire nation as well as the Constitution itself a service if she would use the confirmation process to express and explain her commitment to follow the Constitution—all of it. If Kagan does talk about the text and history of the Constitution, as well as the role of the court, it could go a long way toward recalibrating the current national debate on the judiciary and the Constitution.
So, as we look forward toward Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, the question isn't whether she will use the opportunity of her hearings to defend living constitutionalism or to debunk originalism. That is probably too freighted a discussion, and one that no progressive can possibly win in this day and age. The question I would ask is why it's so fashionable for nominees to suggest that the hard work of judging is simple; that the Constitution is no more complicated than the instructions for assembling an Ikea end table; and that the reason they are perfectly qualified for the job is that, well, they can read. What does it say about the court as an institution that everyone who goes through the interview process must downplay the difficulty of the job?
And Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, responding to Lithwick, calls originalism out as “a great hustle”:
Lithwick notes that the theory of orginalism assumes a "nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear." But to the originalists, it is always perfectly clear: The answer is whatever they want it to be, all other conclusions are inherently illegitimate. That's what makes originalism such a great hustle -- its arbitraryness is masked by nigh-bulletproof rhetorical argument -- that its adherents are simply "applying the law as written." In order to attack their reasoning, you first have to dismantle the idea that there are no inherent tensions within the Constitution that need to be resolved in order to reach a clear ruling. In a way, originalists are a bit like religious fundamentalists who insist on following their religious texts literally but in practice only select those that fit their prevailing cultural sympathies, dismissing others as heretics and unbelievers.
We’re hoping that the weeks since Souter’s commencement address are just the beginning of a new discussion about the Constitution and the importance of the Supreme Court in all of our lives - a discussion that should be at the center of the debate on Kagan’s confirmation.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by Maher Arar, a Canadian national who was sent to Syria and tortured after arriving in New York from a vacation.
The court did not comment Monday in ending Syrian-born Maher Arar's quest to sue top U.S. officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Arar says he was mistaken for a terrorist when he was changing planes in New York on his way home to Canada, a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was instead sent to Syria, where he claims he was tortured.
Lower courts dismissed Arar's lawsuit, which asserts the U.S. purposely sent him to Syria to be tortured. Syria has denied he was tortured.
The Canadian government agreed to pay Arar $10 million and apologized to him for its role in the case.
Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Yahya Wehelie, a US citizen who was on his way home from Yemen, is in custody in Cairo after F.B.I. agents discovered that he was on a no-fly list.
For six weeks, Mr. Wehelie has been in limbo in the Egyptian capital. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises Al Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job.
But after many hours of questioning by F.B.I. agents, he remains on the no-fly list. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, F.B.I. agents turned him down.
“The lady told me that Columbus sailed the ocean blue a long time ago when there were no planes,” Mr. Wehelie said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “I’m an innocent American in exile, and I have no way to get home.”
The common thread uniting these two situations is silence. By refusing to hear Mr. Arar’s case, the Supreme Court tacitly acknowledges the government’s argument (a carryover from the Bush administration) that any matter which could jeopardize national security does not belong in court. In Mr. Wehelie’s case, the FBI invoked a policy that precludes it from discussing persons on watch lists or no fly lists.
By continuing his predecessor’s policies, President Obama is responding to the pressure placed upon him by recent terrorist threats. But at what cost? Do fundamental rights to due process stop applying as soon as the government decides you aren’t worthy of them?
Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who the US detained in 2002 and sent to Syria to be imprisoned and tortured for a year—without ever being charged with a crime.
In an article for the New York Review of Books, David Cole, one of Arar’s lawyers, outlines the unconscionable treatment of Arar and the very different responses of the Canadian and US governments when it came to light:
Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. In fact, Arar was merely listed as one of many persons “of interest” to the investigation, because he was thought to know one of the individuals who was targeted. The commission found, however, that Canadian officials did not know that the United States was planning to send Arar to Syria. That decision was made by US officials with the Syrians and not shared with the Canadians.
Canada, in other words, played a relatively small part in Arar’s injuries, as compared to the United States. Yet Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.
Here in the United States, the response could not have been more different. US officials have never apologized to Arar. They persist in leaving him on a “no-fly” list, despite the fact that Canada has cleared him of any suspicion, much less wrongdoing. And when we filed suit in 2004 to seek damages from the US officials directly responsible for the decision to send Arar to his torturers, lawyers for the Bush administration argued that even assuming that federal officials had intentionally delivered Arar to Syria to be tortured, and blocked him from seeking court protection while he was in their custody, they could not be held liable for his injuries on the grounds that the case implicated secret communications and national security concerns not appropriate for court resolution.
Because the Supreme Court won’t hear Arar’s case, he doesn’t have any more hope of recourse from the courts. As Cole points out, the duty to make amends to Arar lie in the hands of the President and Congress. And, perhaps more importantly, it is their responsibility to make sure what happened to Arar never happens again.
Last week’s appointment of James E. Graves Jr. to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t get a lot of attention. But his nomination represents a remarkable milestone. Graves is currently the only African American justice on the Supreme Court of Mississippi and, if confirmed, he will become the first African American Mississippi has ever sent to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Last week at the America’s Future Now! Conference, People For’s Marge Baker participated in a panel called "Changing Citizens United and Fixing the Supreme Court." The panelists explained the negative impact of the Roberts Court’s corporate bias, the Citizens United decision, and the influence of big businesses on our elections. But don’t worry, they also outlined all the things we can do about it: legislate change, fix the courts, and, most importantly, work towards amending the Constitution.
Republicans, hoping to derail the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, have recently focused on “newly unearthed” documents from her time as a Supreme Court clerk — even though they not only had the documents last year, they also had asked her about them, Congressional transcripts show.
Not to be a killjoy here, but it seems that the debate would be a lot more constructive if we could focus on a real discussions about what the Supreme Court should be and have to respond to this kind of manufactured outrage. (Unfortunately, “discussion of real issues” is not included in the Right Wing’s Supreme Court Playbook).
Dawn Johnsen, the law professor who was forced in April to withdraw her nomination to head the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, has written a forceful op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Johnsen, an exceedingly qualified candidate who was the victim of a fifteen month Republican obstruction effort, writes that the President and Senate need to quickly install a new OLC head—and to pick someone who will lead the office in an honest and nonpartisan way:
In 2004, the leak of a controversial memo on the use of torture catapulted the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel into the spotlight. Fallout and debate continue, including in the context of my nomination -- withdrawn this spring -- to head this office. While attention understandably is focused on confirming the president's Supreme Court nominee, the OLC remains, after six years, without a confirmed leader.
It is long past time to halt the damage caused by the "torture memo" by settling on a bipartisan understanding of the proper role of this critical office and confirming an assistant attorney general committed to that understanding.
There is no simple answer to why my nomination failed. But I have no doubt that the OLC torture memo -- and my profoundly negative reaction to it -- was a critical factor behind the substantial Republican opposition that sustained a filibuster threat. Paradoxically, prominent Republicans earlier had offered criticisms strikingly similar to my own. A bipartisan acceptance of those criticisms is key to moving forward. The Senate should not confirm anyone who defends that memo as acceptable legal advice.
Johnsen is right that the OLC should be led by a fierce advocate of the rule of law—someone like Johnsen herself. We hope that the debate over the next OLC nominee will, unlike the last debate, reflect the importance of this qualification.
The Constitutional Accountability Center has just released a statistical study of the current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate voting patterns. And guess what? The numbers back the trend that’s anecdotally hard to miss.
CAC’s statistical study tests empirically the idea that the conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests. Our study examined every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions, and in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was either a party or an amicus curiae — a universe of 53 cases. This study reveals an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases), and a success rate of 71% in cases decided by a narrow (five-Justice) majority. The Court’s conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy) tend to vote together in their support for the Chamber, while the Court’s moderate/liberal bloc (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist, casting only 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.
These data strongly support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives frequently adopting the Chamber’s position. In one particularly startling finding, Justice Alito, since joining the Court, has never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position in a closely divided case. This statistical evidence supports the charge by President Obama and Chairman Leahy that the Court’s conservative majority has a disturbing pro-corporate tilt, and this reality should provide an important frame for General Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearing.
In a compelling new piece at Slate, Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center and Jim Ryan of the University of Virginia argue that when Elena Kagan faces the Senate Judiciary Committee she shouldn’t ignore or reject strict Constitutionalism—she should wrest its definition back from the Right wing:
…Kagan should take the opportunity provided by this week-long constitutional seminar to chronicle the arc of our constitutional progress and make it clear that she will faithfully adhere to the whole Constitution, including the amendments passed over the last 220 years. The amendments passed since the founding era have been glossed over a lot lately, at the Tea Parties, in the states, and even at the Supreme Court, where the conservative "originalists" seem to view what was originally drafted by the framing generation as better, and more legitimate law, than the changes made since. This view is absurd and should be forcefully rejected by Kagan. Perhaps she could follow Chief Justice Robert's umpire analogy, in which he famously likened judges to umpires calling balls and strikes. No one would claim that modern umpires have the power to enforce the "original" rules of baseball, even if those rules have been changed. The same is true of justices enforcing the Constitution.
As Rand Paul and the RNC have recently learned the hard way, most Americans accept that our Constitution, like our society, has changed over the past 200 years. Kendall and Ryan are right that progressives shouldn’t downplay the written document—they should brandish it.
The Supreme Court ruled today that Arizona candidates who have opted in to the state’s public financing system can’t collect matching funds—the money allotted to candidates who are up against particularly well-funded opponents or interest groups—until the Court has time to consider whether the matching funds are constitutional.
This leaves candidates who had agreed to public funding (and so hadn’t built up large stocks of cash) in a tough spot coming into August 24th’s primary. The moratorium on matching funds will last until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case—a decision that could come as late as the fall.
Gubernatorial candidates running with public funding get a basic allotment of $707,000 for the primary and were also eligible for up to $1.4 million — two times the basic allotment — in matching funds. Publicly funded candidates for down-ballot offices get smaller amounts of basic funding and also are eligible for corresponding amounts of matching funds.
Nearly half of the state-office candidates who qualified to run in the primary were running with public funding.
The Supreme Court showed in Citizens United that it was willing to go out of its way to help big money influence elections. Today’s ruling is further evidence of that trend.
UPDATE: People For's president, Michael B. Keegan, has issued a statement on the Supreme Court's order, saying, "In this ruling, the Court has shown once again that it is open to letting big money gain big influence in our democracy." The full statement is here.
Last week, People for the American Way Foundation signed on to an amicus brief urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s decision allowing a Louisiana middle school to segregate classrooms by sex. The amicus brief, led by the National Women’s Law Center, argued that sex-segregated classrooms are harmful to members of both sexes and violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Parents of the Rene A. Rost Middle School were informed in 2009 that classes for the school would be segregated by sex for the coming fall semester. A parent whose children were placed in sex-segregated classes without receiving constitutionally mandated coeducational options objected and was told that because the coed classes had already been filled, the only option left for one of her daughters was a special needs class. Represented by the ACLU, the parent sued and the trial court dismissed the case by wrongly shifting the burden of proof, requiring the victim to prove discrimination by demonstrating an “intent to harm” - a new standard that is almost impossible to meet and not recognized by the Supreme Court.
As the Supreme Court held in its 1996 decision requiring the Virginia Military Institute to admit women, for a state to permissibly classify on the basis of sex, it “must carry the burden of showing an exceedingly persuasive justification for the classification.” Additionally, the state must not “rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.” Simply put, the Court has found that a state must have a very good reason before it decides to discriminate on the basis of sex.
NWLC’s brief cites evidence that suggests a total lack of adequate justification for the school’s policy, both from a legal and practical perspective, specifically a flawed study performed by Rost Middle School’s principal. Simply put, if the Fifth Circuit were to uphold the District Court’s decision, it would ignore almost 30 years of settled Equal Protection law in order to endorse a discriminatory policy that is harmful to all students regardless of gender.
Jeff Sessions is at it again. In a statement following the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents related to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Friday, Sessions concluded:
Kagan’s memos unambiguously express a leftist philosophy and an approach to the law that seems more concerned with achieving a desired social result than fairly following the Constitution. Ms. Kagan has never been a judge, and only briefly practiced law—spending far more time as a liberal advocate than a legal practitioner.
Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate committee that will grill Kagan this summer, has apparently decided to stick to the blanket accusation of “judicial activism”—or, as it is now known, “outcomes-based” judging. The idea that conservative judges read the Constitution while liberal judges pull ideas out of thin air was spectacularly disproved by the Roberts Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, and recently received a thorough takedown from former Justice David Souter. Yet Sessions continues to peddle nonsense about progressive appointees caring more about a “social result” than the Constitution.
And, by the way, when Sessions accuses Kagan of lacking judicial experience, he walks right into a well-documented double standard.
In his commencement address at Harvard last week, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter offered up an eloquent and thorough debunking of the popular conservative delusion of constitutional “originalism.”
At issue is "originalism," an approach to reading the Constitution whose seeming precision has given conservatives a polemical advantage over the liberals' "Living Constitution" idea that appears to let judges say our founding document means whatever they want it to mean.
Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's leading orginalist, summarized his opponents' attitude toward the Constitution with four words: "You know, it morphs."
Now, thanks to Souter's commencement address at Harvard last week, Scalia's critics have fighting words of their own. Souter, who did not mention Scalia by name, underscored "how egregiously it misses the point to think of judges in constitutional cases as just sitting there reading constitutional phrases fairly and looking at reported facts objectively to produce their judgments."
The problem is not only that "constitutions have a lot of general language in them in order to be useful as constitutions," but also that the U.S. Constitution "contains values that may very well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony."
This means that "hard cases are hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another."
Souter focused on the example of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. "For those whose exclusive norm of constitutional judging is merely fair reading of language applied to facts objectively viewed,” he said, “Brown must either be flat-out wrong or a very mystifying decision.”
Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, has written an account of the efforts of the business lobby and Republican Senators to keep Rhode Island environmental lawyer John McConnell off the federal bench.
McConnell’s offense? Representing the State of Rhode Island in a lawsuit to get a lead paint manufacturer to clean up the damage caused by its toxic product. (A jury awarded the state $2.4 billion in cleanup costs; the Rhode Island Supreme Court threw out the verdict).
Whatever you think of the verdict, McConnell was a lawyer representing a client, the State of Rhode Island. He argued on behalf of his client, which is what lawyers are supposed to do. Litigators are not supposed to behave like judges (until and unless they actually become one).
That distinction was lost on Senators Kyl and Sessions. Sessions actually argued:
"Being passionate and zealous is a good quality for a litigator. But I do think those qualities are somewhat different in the cloistered halls of a courtroom, where you're reading briefs and trying to be objective. Those emotions might again start running, and you might say that 'There's a wrong there that I need to right.'"
The two Republican senators were echoing the arguments of the Chamber of Commerce, which had warned Congress against McConnell:
"His apparent bias against the business community and questionable judicial philosophy raise serious reservations about his fitness to serve a lifetime appointment to the federal bench," said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. "McConnell's elevation to the federal judiciary could create a 'magnet' jurisdiction that would encourage additional meritless, plaintiffs' lawyer-driven lawsuits."
The U.S. Chamber spends more on lobbying Congress than any other organization. It is not a coincidence that it has made itself a powerful—if not always logical— voice in the shaping of federal courts.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled today that suspects being interrogated can only invoke their right to be silent if they say so explicitly—they can’t just remain silent. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion, called the ruling a "substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda v. Arizona has long provided.” The Los Angeles Times explains:
In the past, the court has said the "burden rests on the government" to show that a crime suspect has "knowingly and intelligently waived" his rights.
But in a 5-4 decision Tuesday, the court said the suspect had the duty to invoke his rights. If he failed to do so, his later words can be used to convict him, the justices said.
The ruling comes in a case involving a murder suspect who, though read his Miranda rights, never said he would waive them. After three hours of interrogation, he offered a few monosyllabic responses that implicated him in the crime. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, went beyond the case in question to hold that suspects, rather than having to explicitly agree to be interrogated, have to explicitly invoke their Miranda rights in order to halt questioning.
Sotomayor pointed out that requiring a suspect to speak in order to remain silent doesn’t really make sense:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's newest member, wrote a strongly worded dissent for the court's liberals, saying the majority's decision "turns Miranda upside down."
"Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent — which counterintuitively, requires them to speak," she said. "At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."
She also criticized the majority for going beyond the decision necessary for the specific case in order to make new and broader rules:
If, in the Court’s view, the Michigan court did not unreasonably apply our Miranda precedents in denying Thompkins relief, it should simply say so and reverse the Sixth Circuit’s judgment on that ground. “It is a fundamental rule of judicial restraint . . . that this Court will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them.” Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C., 467 U. S. 138, 157 (1984).
It’s a perfect example of how the Roberts majority, while displaying remarkable ambivalence to the practical implications of its rulings, isn’t just calling “balls and strikes”—it’s going to bat for its own unprecedented agenda.
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.