Leahy criticizes 'pro-business' Supreme Court

Chris Rizo Jul. 23, 2008, 9:55pm

Patrick Leahy (D)

Arlen Specter (R)

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday took aim at a range to Supreme Court decisions they said put big business' interests ahead of those of ordinary Americans.

In his opening statement for a hearing titled "Courting Big Business: The Supreme Court's Recent Decisions on Corporate Misconduct and Laws Regulating Corporations," Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy chided the high court.

"The Supreme Court has demonstrated its increasing willingness to overturn juries who received the factual evidence and weighed the arguments," the Vermont Democrat said.

"Nothing is more fundamental to the American justice system than our trust in the wisdom and judgment of ordinary Americans who serve on juries," Leahy added.

He lashed out at the nation's highest court for, among other things, slashing the punitive damages awarded to victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and for upholding binding arbitration agreements in debt cases.

In the case of Exxon, Leahy said the court's decision to cut the amount of damages awarded was out of line.

"If Congress had wanted to cap the punitive damages for disasters that impact thousands of Americans, of course we could have done so," Leahy said, "but we didn't."

The Exxon class action lawsuit, which has been running for nearly twenty years, centered on a dispute over the $2.5 billion in punitive damages awarded after 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled in March 1989 in Alaska's Prince William Sound after the ship ran aground.

In the high court's majority opinion, Associate Justice David Souter wrote that the punitive damages award should be brought into line with compensatory damages awarded earlier in the case.

"The award here should be limited to an amount equal to compensatory damages," Souter wrote.

He said, "A 1:1 ratio, which is above the median award, is a fair upper limit in such maritime cases."

For his part, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's ranking Republican, said in many of its rulings the justices left room for Congress to address problems with laws.

He did, however, take aim at the court's decision in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, where the majority held that the statute of limitations starts as soon as employment discrimination begins rather than when the employee first discovers it.

"I would like to see the Congress move forward on the Ledbetter case," Specter said. "She didn't know she had a claim. How can you pursue a claim if you don't know that the claim even existed."

Elizabeth Barthole, a Harvard Law School professor, said when the court upheld mandatory arbitration agreements in cases of credit card debt, the justices bound consumers to a quazi-legal system she said favors corporations.

"The supreme court approval of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration has given banks and credit card companies a private justice system in which they can purchase the result they want at the expense of the debtors," she said.

Patricia Ann Millett, a former attorney in the Office of U.S. Solicitor General, said it is a fallacy to say the Supreme Court favored corporate interests in its previous term.

Over the last year, the high court has a split record. She said about half of their decisions could be seen as pro-business, while the other half favor individuals.

"Whether viewed from the corporate or non-corporate vantage point, this Term was a decidedly mixed bag," she said.

She noted that the Supreme Court decided 24 cases involving business concerns, which represented approximately one-third of the high court's docket.

"In those decisions, the Court split almost evenly, ruling in ways that could be described as pro-business in thirteen of the cases, and ruling against business interests in eleven cases," Millett said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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