TOPICS > Politics

Justices Cut Valdez Damages, Rule on Child Rape

June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court rejected use of the death penalty for those convicted of child rape Wednesday and cut the punitive damages awarded for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle recaps the decisions.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s Supreme Court decisions eliminating the death penalty for child rape and slashing the damage award in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Here to walk us through them is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, is it unusual for the Supreme Court to strike down a state criminal penalty?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: To strike down a state criminal penalty in general, it’s somewhat unusual. It really depends on what the penalty is.

And here, with the death penalty in particular, this was the first time in many years that the court was faced with what looked to be an expansion of the death penalty.

This crime involved Patrick Kennedy, who raped his stepdaughter. She was 8 years old. And there was no question from the opinions that these justices were repulsed and horrified by the crime. He inflicted serious injuries on her.

But as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion, what we’re talking about here now is the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. And that protection rests on a very basic premise that the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime.

And one way of determining that is to look at society’s evolving standards of decency, as reflected one way, what states have been doing.

He looked at the states and he found that only six states today imposed the death penalty for rape of a child. He noted that 45 jurisdictions, including the federal government, do not permit the death penalty for the rape of a child.

He also noted that there has been no execution for rape of an adult or a child since 1964. And there are only two people on death row in the entire United States for rape of a child, which leads to evidence of a consensus against capital punishment for rape of a child.

He also took a look at the — you know, the death penalty itself has traditionally been reserved for a narrow category of crimes that are the most serious and for offenders who are most culpable and deserving of capital punishment.

In just recent years, the Supreme Court has found the Eighth Amendment was violated when the death penalty was imposed on juveniles and on the mentally retarded. And he said that as horrific as rape of a child is, it isn’t the equivalent to murder in its severity or in its irrevocability.

Arguments of dissenting Justices

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
Justice Kennedy did point to some practical considerations, such as victims' groups had said that imposing the death penalty could make the reporting of child rape even more difficult than it is today.

RAY SUAREZ: Who were the dissenters? And what did they have to say in response?

MARCIA COYLE: There were four dissenters, the chief justice, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

Justice Alito wrote for the four dissenters. And he said that he felt that some of the court's reasoning here was really irrelevant to the analysis of the Eighth Amendment.

For example, Justice Kennedy did point to some practical considerations, such as victims' groups had said that imposing the death penalty could make the reporting of child rape even more difficult than it is today.

And also it could further traumatize child victims, because they had to go through trials and multiple appeals. And that could harm their ability to recover.

He said those were policy considerations best left to state legislatures to weigh in deciding whether to impose the death penalty. That's basically where he went.

Refining capital punishment law

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned the rulings on those who had committed their crimes while a juvenile, those committed by the mentally ill. Is this court or has this court in recent years been actively refining the law around capital punishment?

MARCIA COYLE: It's been very involved in capital punishment, not so much on the basic questions, though, of who can be executed. It's been dealing every term with a variety of cases involving appeals of death row inmates and what kind of hurdles they have to overcome in order to have their sentences or their convictions reviewed.

It takes a lot of this court's time. And the court has also been very concerned about the quality of counsel in death cases, death trials.

But these major questions involving the mentally retarded, juveniles, and now the rape of a child, they have not been as frequent. But the court is, I think, not interested right now in expanding the death penalty.

Defining accident liabilities

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in the case of the Exxon Valdez, the court was asked, among other things, to rule on whether a ship's owner is directly responsible for the misdeeds of the ship's master.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. And the answer to that question could have ended the case if the court had said, no, the owner is not responsible, for example, in this case for the ship captain's acts.

But the court split 4-4. There were only eight justices ruling in this case, because Justice Alito had recused himself. He reportedly has stock in Exxon and avoided a conflict, so that question was left undecided.

But the effect of that is the lower court ruling is intact. And the lower court here has said, yes, the ship owner can be held liable for the acts of its agent.

Slashing oil spill compensation

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
Justice Souter ... said that the real problem here with punitive damage awards is their stark unpredictability. They may at times create outlier awards that really are unfair.

RAY SUAREZ: So how did the opinion this time take shape around a very severe reduction of the damages awarded to the people of Prince William Sound, Alaska?

MARCIA COYLE: This was the question that most people were watching, corporations, as well as plaintiffs. Justice Souter wrote the majority opinion here. And the question was: Is the $2.5 billion punitive award greater than allowed by maritime law?

Maritime law is a special body of law governing navigation and shipping. And the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction, along with Congress, over making maritime law.

Justice Souter took a look at studies of punitive damage awards in many types of cases. And he said that the real problem here with punitive damage awards is their stark unpredictability. They may at times create outlier awards that really are unfair and don't provide consistency in the law or for parties involved in cases.

And then he looked at how states and others, including the Supreme Court, have approached measuring whether a punitive award is an outlier. And he expressed frustration with the various ways.

But, ultimately, he said that he thought the best approach was to look at a ratio, impose a ratio here. And he looked again at these studies by juries and judges who have imposed punitive awards in thousands of cases and said that the median ratio seems to be one-to-one, one dollar of punitive damages for every one dollar of compensatory damages, which, as you know, are damages for actual injuries. Punitive damages are designed to punish and deter.

So he said that he felt that, in maritime law, the ratio should be one-to-one, and, looking at the $2.5 billion award, it had to be reduced then down to what these 33,000 Alaskans had received in compensatory awards, which was roughly $500 million.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, before we go, who are the intended recipients of the now much reduced award?

MARCIA COYLE: There originally was a class of about 33,000 commercial fishermen, businesses, and others whose livelihood was pretty much destroyed by the oil spill. I believe about 20 percent of that original class has died since this case began 19 years ago. They should be getting, those who remain, roughly $15,000 a piece.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks for joining us.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.