Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Wednesday, April 09, 2003  

Supreme Court Thoughts

Do you get a sinking feeling every time you hear Nina Totenberg's voice intone the words "Supreme Court decision?" It's like a Pavlovian response: you duck for cover. Fortunately, I think the court got this week's decisions right.

Cross Burning
As a radical free-speecher, I'm really delighted about this decision. Although the purpose of burning a cross seems clearly (in most cases) to be a threat, I was worried that a ruling banning the practice would be a blow against free speech. Instead, the court narrowed their decision to target only the occasions when cross burning is a threat (when it's burned on a black homeowner's lawn, for instance), rather than protected political speech (at a David Duke rally, for instance).

It also deals a serious blow to the violent anti-abortionists. Recall that a case is working its way through the courts based on the "Nuremburg Files" website. It featured a "hit list" of doctors with their addresses for protesters to target. Whenever a doctor was killed, the hosts drew a line through the name. (A facsimile of the site can be found here.) Originally, a jury issued a $107 million verdict against the group, but it was overturned on appeal. As I understand it, the case will now be heard by the 9th Circuit. The Supreme's ruling in the cross-burning case should help clarify some of the issues in the Nuremburg case.

Punitive Damages
This case is more controversial. The case involved a $145 million verdict against State Farm Insurance, who felt the verdict's punitive finding was out of line with the damage award.

"The court overturned $145 million in punitive damages that a Utah jury awarded against State Farm and that the Utah Supreme Court upheld. The jury had awarded $1 million in compensatory damages to a Utah couple, State Farm policyholders, who sued the company for its refusal to settle a claim and for exposing them to personal liability beyond the limits of their policy for a car accident in which a jury found the husband liable. State Farm eventually paid the claim.

"Justice Kennedy said the ratio of 145 to 1 resulted in a damage award that was 'neither reasonable nor proportionate to the wrong committed.' He called it 'an irrational and arbitrary deprivation of the property of the defendant.'"

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It is potentially controversial because Democrats, who get truckloads of dough from trial lawyers, argue that there should be no limit. I disagree. A number of industries are seriously threatened by these massive lawsuits, not the least of which is medicine (because malpractice insurance is through the roof). The argument is that if massive judgments can't be brought against corrupt corporations, they'll run roughshod over the consumer. Of course, I'm all for punishing corporations, but the judiciary is the wrong branch of government to deal with the problem: it's a job for legislators.

posted by Jeff | 10:25 AM |
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