Exxon Valdez: Permissive Standards for Corporations

The U.S. Supreme Court is coming under fire for favoring business at the expense of both precedent and principle. The linked article discusses decisions where the interest of business has predominated over the interests of consumers and citizens. This of course was the expected result of Bush’s appointments.

What is more interesting to me is the Court’s willingness to abandon supposedly “conservative” judicial tenets to achieve these results. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, have criticized the Court for usurping the role of Congress in the Exxon Valdez decision.

What surprises me is the abandonment of the “law and order” principals that are invoked to incarcerate people when corporate malfeasance is at issue. Mandatory sentencing and long sentences are deemed appropriate for individuals because criminal behavior is reprehensible. For reprehensible corporate behavior, however, the Exxon Valdez decision says that limits are appropriate and the same juries that convict people should not be trusted to penalize corporations.

For this reason the Court declared in the Exxon Valdez decision that henceforth there will be a limit on the discretion of juries in awarding punitive damages for reprehensible behavior by corporations. Exxon received a 4.5 billion dollar reprieve by the Court in reducing the jury award to $500,000,000. This of course is just a small fraction of its continuously record setting profits last quarter.  Certainly a minor inconvenience compared to spending one’s life, or a significant portion of it, in prison.

There are now two standards for “reprehensible conduct” in America. There is the harsh standard levied upon individuals in criminal settings and the lax standard imposed upon corporations in the civil penalty context.

If the Court, and its allies, meant what they said in “law and order” discussions you would expect that reprehensible conduct would be viewed equally hostilely whether it was associated with an individual or a corporation.   Similarly, you would expect juries to be viewed in the same light whether the defendant was an individual accused of a crime or a corporation found to have committed anti-social behavior.

Exxon Valdez: Permissive Standards for Corporations
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