April 13, 2008

Michael Allen Article About the Significance of Philip Morris v. Williams

Michael P. Allen, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, has written an article entitled "Of Remedy, Juries, and State Regulation of Punitive Damages: The Significance of Philip Morris v. Williams." The article has been available on SSRN for a few months, but it just became available on Westlaw. A few things about the article caught my eye. First, Allen views the Williams decision as a further tightening of the ratio analysis that the Court adopted in BMW v. Gore and refined in State Farm v. Campbell:

I suggest that Philip Morris is another step in the Court's campaign to restrict the device to what it perceives to be its historical roots. Specifically, the Court in Philip Morris more explicitly adopts a one-on-one tort model as the constitutionally favored view of the tort system, at least with respect to punitive damages.

Compare Allen's view to that of Anthony Sebok, who draws the opposite conclusion from Williams in his Charleston Law Review article entitled "After Philip Morris v. Williams: What is Left of the Single Digit Ratio?"

Allen also makes an observation about how the Court's punitive damages jurisprudence has divided the conservative justices, and how Williams offers some insight as to how Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito will come down on that split:

[T]he federal constitutional regulation of punitive damage awards, the overwhelming number of which are rendered under state law, has always been an intriguing battleground on which so-called “conservative” justices needed to choose between their purported instinct to protect business and commercial interests on the one hand and the protection of states from federal “interference” on the other. One saw this perceived conservative division at play in earlier punitive damages cases in which Justices O'Connor and Kennedy consistently voted to limit state punitive damage awards through, among other things, substantive due process principles. In contrast, Justices Scalia and Thomas consistently dissented in those cases, arguing principally that the Constitution provides no warrant for federal intervention concerning punitive damage awards.

In Philip Morris we got at least a preliminary indication of where the new Chief Justice and Justice Alito come down on this “conservative split.” Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, both of them joined Justice Breyer's majority opinion reaffirming and extending the Supreme Court's precedents imposing federal constitutional limitations on state punitive damage awards. And they did so despite the opportunity to join a dissent based at least in part on a commitment to state-sovereignty principles.

My co-blogger Jeremy Rosen has touched on this same issue in his posts about the role of conservative judges in punitive damages litigation and the possible impact of the presidential election on the Court's decisions in this area.