Exxon Valdez: Permissive Standards for Corporations

August 26, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court is coming under fire for favoring business at the expense of both precedent and principle. The linked article discusses decisions where the interest of business has predominated over the interests of consumers and citizens. This of course was the expected result of Bush’s appointments.

What is more interesting to me is the Court’s willingness to abandon supposedly “conservative” judicial tenets to achieve these results. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, have criticized the Court for usurping the role of Congress in the Exxon Valdez decision.

What surprises me is the abandonment of the “law and order” principals that are invoked to incarcerate people when corporate malfeasance is at issue. Mandatory sentencing and long sentences are deemed appropriate for individuals because criminal behavior is reprehensible. For reprehensible corporate behavior, however, the Exxon Valdez decision says that limits are appropriate and the same juries that convict people should not be trusted to penalize corporations.

For this reason the Court declared in the Exxon Valdez decision that henceforth there will be a limit on the discretion of juries in awarding punitive damages for reprehensible behavior by corporations. Exxon received a 4.5 billion dollar reprieve by the Court in reducing the jury award to $500,000,000. This of course is just a small fraction of its continuously record setting profits last quarter.  Certainly a minor inconvenience compared to spending one’s life, or a significant portion of it, in prison.

There are now two standards for “reprehensible conduct” in America. There is the harsh standard levied upon individuals in criminal settings and the lax standard imposed upon corporations in the civil penalty context.

If the Court, and its allies, meant what they said in “law and order” discussions you would expect that reprehensible conduct would be viewed equally hostilely whether it was associated with an individual or a corporation.   Similarly, you would expect juries to be viewed in the same light whether the defendant was an individual accused of a crime or a corporation found to have committed anti-social behavior.

Integration of Immigrants

March 3, 2008

I recently wrote an admitted dry, entirely neutral and innocuous, report on a decision regarding the admission of evidence in a case in which an illegal immigrant was the plaintiff. This person was paralyzed as a result of an accident caused by illegal working conditions, but apparently because his status as an illegal immigrant came out in court the jury denied him any recovery whatsoever. Judging from blind fury of the reaction to the piece, there appear to be many people for whom this topic unleashes their damaged inner-child.  The idea of illegal immigrants unlocks some component of their psyche that should be kept locked.  This certainly supports the view that mention of the topic can deny an illegal immigrant a fair trial.Apart from primal screams, there have been developments in regard to immigrant policy. Governor Gregoire two weeks ago signed an executive order creating Washington’s New Americans Policy Council, which is charged with helping immigrant succeed and become citizens. While this approach was not championed by those who commented, it might help with their socialization by subduing their need for therapy.