By Big Tent Democrat
Chief Justice John Roberts was pained. Exxon Mobil, the giant oil corporation appearing before the Supreme Court yesterday, had earned a profit of nearly $40 billion in 2006, the largest ever reported by a U.S. company -- but that's not what bothered Roberts. What bothered the chief justice was that Exxon was being ordered to pay $2.5 billion -- roughly three weeks' worth of profits -- for destroying a long swath of the Alaska coastline in the largest oil spill in American history.
"So what can a corporation do to protect itself against punitive-damages awards such as this?" Roberts asked in court. The lawyer arguing for the Alaska fishermen affected by the spill, Jeffrey Fisher, had an idea. "Well," he said, "it can hire fit and competent people." The rare sound of laughter rippled through the august chamber. The chief justice did not look amused.
The strange thing about this is this is precisely the rationale for punitive damages. The Chief Justice's concern is a curious one for a judicial minimalist. I'll explain why on the flip.
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