SCOTUScast 2-28-07 featuring Richard Epstein
Philip Morris USA v. Williams and Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons
February 28, 2007Richard A. Epstein
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In a case arising out of the death of a smoker from lung cancer, the jury awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages based on the plaintiffs' appeal to the jury to punish the company for harm done to a larger class of unidentified smokers. The Court nullified the verdict, holding that a punitive damages award based on the jury's desire to punish a company for harming "strangers to the litigation" amounted to an unconstitutional government seizure of private property without due process. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, joined by an unusual coalition: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Souter, and Alito. Justices Stevens, Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsburg dissented.
A unanimous Court, speaking through Justice Thomas, held that the antitrust standard for "predatory selling" (i.e. reducing the sale price of a product in order to drive competitors out of business and then, once they are eliminated, raising prices to a supra-competitive level) set forth in Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson, 509 U.S. 209 (1993), also applies to claims of "predatory bidding." Because the plaintiff concededly had failed to satisfy that test, the Court once again overturned the Ninth Circuit.
Lawrence v. Florida (Not discussed in podcast.)
In another opinion by Justice Thomas, the Court ruled that the one-year statute of limitations for a federal habeas challenge to a state conviction is not tolled for a pending certiorari petition in the U.S. Supreme Court under 28 U.S.C. §2244(d)(2)'s provision for a pending "application for State post-conviction or other collateral review." Under the plain language, the Court held, the AEDPA deadline is only tolled for a post-conviction challenge pending in state court. The majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice, as well as Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissented.
Marrama v. Citizens Bank of Massachusetts (Not discussed in podcast.)
Justice Stevens wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, holding that, although §706(a) of the Bankruptcy Code gives a debtor the right to convert a Chapter 7 case into a Chapter 13 case, this right is not absolute. Thus, courts have discretion to deny the debtor's request in certain circumstances (in this case, bad faith). Justice Alito penned a dissent, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas, arguing the majority ignored the plain meaning of the statute.
Wallace v. Kato (Not discussed in podcast.)
Justice Scalia authored the Court's opinion addressing a civil rights suit filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. After serving eight years in prison on a conviction that was ultimately overturned, the plaintiff sought damages for false arrest. The majority concluded the applicable two-year statute of limitations begins running at the time of arrest, not after a resulting conviction or sentence has been overturned. Thus, the Court dismissed the suit as untimely filed. The Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito joined the decision. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissented, reasoning that plaintiffs could present better evidence if they were allowed to wait for convictions to be nullified and predicting that meritless claims will now flood the courts as prisoners file premature claims in order to avoid missing the deadline.