May 24, 2008

Will the Exxon Valdez Case Produce a Unanimous Opinion?

Linda Greenhouse has an interesting article, "At Supreme Court, 5-to-4 Rulings Fade, but Why?" noting the substantial decline in 5-4 opinions from the United States Supreme Court this term. So far this term, only one of 35 opinions has been decided 5-4, whereas at this point last term, 13 out of 41 had been decided 5-4. Greenhouse posits that the reasons for this are "liberals using their limited leverage to exact some modest concessions as the price of helping the conservatives avoid another parade of 5-to-4 decisions." As Greenhouse points out, three recent cases resulted in majority opinions with 6 or 7 justices in cases that might have been thought of as candidates for 5-4 decisions (the Indiana voter id law, the Kentucky lethal injection case, and the federal law on child pornography). This trend limits the influence of Justice Kennedy who last term was in the majority in all 24 5-4 decisions and only dissented in 2 of the 68 cases decided. This term, Justice Kennedy has already dissented 5 times.

The interesting question for purposes of this blog is how this potential trend toward greater agreement among the justices will play out in the Exxon Valdez case. By not focusing on the constitutional limits on punitive damages, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsberg will not need to adhere to their prior dissents finding no due process limit on punitive damages. This potentially opens up a larger coalition to reverse the award. There is also a suggestion by Greenhouse that the recent cases that one might have expected to be 5-4 were more fact-driven opinions that did not rely on broad rules, which potentially enabled more justices to sign on. However, as we posted earlier, the oral argument in the Exxon case suggested a divided court. The question is how divided? Stay tuned to this blog to find out.