Friday :: Feb 29, 2008

Oleaginous


by Turkana

You already have to love the Roberts Court. Or something. As the New York Times explains:

The Exxon Valdez oil spill, which caused a 3,000-square-mile oil slick and still affects Alaska’s fisheries after nearly 19 years, was a “tragedy,” Exxon’s lawyer told the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

But the company has been punished enough by $3.4 billion in criminal fines, cleanup costs and compensation payments, the lawyer added, arguing that the $2.5 billion in punitive damages approved by a federal appeals court served no additional “public purpose.”

Exxon’s appeal of the biggest punitive damage award ever upheld in federal court led to a lively Supreme Court argument in which everything was open to dispute, from the significance of a 200-year-old case about robbery on the high seas to the world of modern maritime commerce in which a 1,000-foot tanker like the Exxon Valdez is considered a separate “business unit” in the organization chart of its corporate owner.

With Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. not participating, a result of his ownership of Exxon Mobil stock, the possibility of a 4-to-4 tie was clearly present. A tie would affirm the appeals court’s judgment in favor of a class of 32,000 fishermen and business owners, who stand to receive about $75,000 apiece from the $2.5 billion award. It was abundantly clear to everyone in the crowded courtroom that if the plaintiffs could just hold on to four votes, they would win the case.

And there, once again, is your argument for supporting whichever Democratic presidential candidate wins the nomination. That 4-to-4 tie will not be there much longer, should we have another four years with a Republican in the Oval Office.

And the Washington Post's Dana Milbank had this, which really emphasizes what's at stake:

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.

Give him just one more like-minded Associate, and he won't have to be pained by the idea of sinister corporations being held accountable for destroying a coastline, the wildlife that inhabited it, and the livelihoods of those people whose jobs depended on its well-being.

Turkana :: 3:05 PM :: Comments (7) :: Digg It!