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View Diary: The Supreme Court Rules again on Punitive Damages (31 comments)

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  •  Sure you can (2+ / 0-)
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    TracieLynn, elmo

    Reading a court decision isn't any harder than reading Dickens. There are a few words that you might be unfamiliar with and the average sentence is a bit longer than Strunk and White approve of, but the case itself, even if far too wordy, is not necessarily difficult to follow.

    The first section, the syllabus, gives the background of the case (PM sold cigarettes and lied about their health effects); the original awards ($821,000 and $79.5 million); court decisions prior to this one; and the final ruling -- juries cannot use punitive damages to punish a defendant for harm done to others, because it is an impermissible taking under the Constitution, and the Court won't say what is excessive (though we know from other cases that they know it when they see it).

    The second section, is the decision of the court. This is often the place that the law clerks show that they really were the top of their class (most decisions are written by or have the first draft written by a clerk, the Justice then reviews the work, makes changes as desired, passes it around, and finally gets it out the door). This is generally an in depth analysis of the reasoning used to decide what the Court wants to do, along with some responses to criticisms from any dissents.

    Most decisions rely heavily on cases that were decided in the past, so it is very common for the opinion to be laced with quotes from past decisions. The BMW and State Farm decisions are the important ones in this series of cases. The technical problems, such as which constitutional standard is appropriate, may often be major in a particular case, but are often not terribly important going forward. Here, it is still fine to do everything except tell the jury that they can punish Phillip Morris for harm done to others.

    At the end of the decision is an announcement of what exactly has to happen. Here, as in many cases, they vacate the decision of the lower court and remand (send it back to them) to do what should be done in accordance with the decision.

    Finally, the losers get to explain what is wrong with the decision. This is sometimes an effort in futility, but it can also start to lay the groundwork for improvements in decisions in this area in the future.

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