More About That Rule of Law Thingee

‘Minimalist’ conservative and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts apparently believes that one’s obligation to pay monetary damages after damaging the environment should be, well, minimal:

…the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on how much money ExxonMobil should be forced to pay as damages for its Exxon Valdez oil spill 19 years ago. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank notes that Chief Justice John Roberts appeared “bothered” that Exxon might have to pay for its destruction:

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.

Because responsibility for one’s actions is the sole purview of poor, single, minority mothers.

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7 Responses to More About That Rule of Law Thingee

  1. PhysioProf says:

    Roberts is a right-wing hack.
    Oh, and Dana Milbank is an annoying ass-kissing sycophant.

  2. Learned Foot says:

    The issue in the case wasn’t compensatory damages (they’ve already been paid) but punative damages. And the question before the Court was whether the law supported punitive damages in the amounts which were assessed against the company.
    So, the questions then become:
    1) If “that rule of law thingee” does not support assessing punitive damages in the amounts awarded in this case, would that not be an injustice, and if so, wouldn’t we not expect Roberts to be concerned about it??
    2) Or is it just that ExxonMobile does not enjoy a right to the protection of “that rule of law thingee”??
    3) And if ExxonMobile has no right to the protection of “that rule of law thingee”, what protects you and I from being the next party for whom “that rule of law thingee” does not apply??

  3. Andrew says:

    Clearly, Exxon is the wronged party here. The territorial waters of the United States appear to be useful for shipping, but through gross negligence and incompetence, the government hasn’t seen to it that all rocks and reefs are removed from it’s territorial waters. US territorial waters are an attractive nuisance. US government rocks damaged Exxon’s valuable oil tanker. Exxon should seek compensation from the government.

  4. slim says:

    Learned Foot:
    The punitive damages were based on the risks that Exxon took with a captain the company knew had an active drinking problem, and the extent of the entirely foreseeable damage.
    I am a maritime lawyer, so I know how thoroughly vessel captains are vetted, and how seriously oil spills are taken. We have had fines for vessels where an off-duty crewman was seen with a beer can in hand on deck during fueling – he had nothing to do with the fueling, and wouldn’t be on duty for 12 hours, but we still had to deal with the fine, and the costs of delaying the fueling while the matter was sorted out.
    Exxon is doing a dangerous, potentially calamatously hazardous business and profiting handsomely by it. Exxon took that risk and won big – while fucking up one of the most pristine coastal areas in the world.
    Part of the cost of doing business is paying the goddamn punitive damages when corporate decisionmaking leads to a foreseeable disaster.
    Because mens rea – state of mind – matters, particularly in punitive damages cases. If Exxon’s corporate state of mind had been to protect the natural resources it exploits as carefully as it protects its profits, the M/T Exxon Valdez might never have found Bligh Reef, and there would be no need for punitive damage awards at all.

  5. SLC says:

    Somewhat off topic but as I have been ranting on several blogs, the most important issue in the current presidential campaign is supreme court nominations. This example, cited by Mr. Mike, which has also been cited by Mr. Brayton over on his blog, should make that clear to anybody with half a brain. The issue is very simple, Breyer and Ginsburg or Roberts and Alito. Obama or Clinton = nominations like Breyer and Ginsburg, MrCain = nominations like Roberts and Alito. Period, end of story.

  6. Ross says:

    @learned foot
    I’m not all that comfortable with the notion of of punative damages in the first place. Compensatory damages makes plenty of sense: They did something wrong and they should pay for it. “Compensatory” and “Pay for it” mean the same thing. But punative damages mean “to punish them”, and that only means “to pay for it” in the same way that when a bully beats you up, he says “You’re gonna pay for looking at me wrong”. And it makes total sense for a judge to take a careful look at to whether or not the punishment is fitting. If I throw a baseball through a window, there’s no question of whether dad should make me pay for the window. But if dad says that on top of that, I should be grounded for a week, that’s reasonable, whereas if dad says that on top of that, he’s going to punch me until I cry, that is unreasonable.
    Personally, I think that the punative damage described is more than justified. In fact, I think it’s kinda a slap on the wrists.
    I once had an archconservative friend who described non-tow-away no-parking zones as “Pay lots for the rich”: you could park there as long as you were willing to take the chance of having to pay a $50 “parking fare” in the form of a ticket. Punative damages are like that. Sending that tanker over that reef was just a turnpike whose fare was $132 million a year.
    But even if I’d like to see them pay enough that destroying the planet was not simply “an annoyance” but actually *economically infeasable*, whether or not Exxon has to obey the law is not really what’s at stake here.

  7. slim says:

    But even if I’d like to see them pay enough that destroying the planet was not simply “an annoyance” but actually *economically infeasable*, whether or not Exxon has to obey the law is not really what’s at stake here.
    Then what is? Because if Exxon doesn’t have to obey the law in a case of obvious malfeasance, then who ever will?

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