July 14, 2008

PrawfsBlawg: Supreme Court Punitive Damages Cases Illustrates Folly of Attempting to Predict Outcomes Based on Political Labels

Prof. Rick Hills at PrawfsBlawg has a post entitled "Spatial Attitudinalism & Philip Morris v. Williams." Hill criticizes the approach of political scientists who attempt to predict or explain the outcomes of legal cases by focusing on the political ideology of the judge (often based on the party of the President who appointed the judge.) Hill points out that the voting patterns of Supreme Court Justices in punitive damages cases illustrates the shortcomings of such an approach:

Could any attitudinalist model predict that these two conservative Republicans would be making a stand against the National Association of Manufacturers in favor of state power over punitive damages? Loyalty to federalism and hostility to judicial discretion in interpreting the due process clause surely explain their votes more than any constitutionally irrelevant "attitude." Likewise, Breyer's championing restrictions on juries surely rests on his love of technocracy over decentralized juries more than any fealty to the values of the Democratic Party or love of Big Tobacco.
I think Hill has a good point. As my co-blogger Jeremy Rosen has observed, however, popular commentary on the Court's punitive damages decisions (and even some academic commentary, like this article by Erwin Chemerinsky) has often criticized the "conservative" court for the outcomes in those cases, without even seeming to notice that the most conservative justices on the court dissented from those opinions. After all, BMW v. Gore, the case that launched the Court's foray into substantive due process restrictions for punitive damages, was authored by Justice Stevens, not usually described as a conservative. (Though he was appointed by a Republican, so I guess that would fit a primitive "spatial attitudinalism" model.)