December 10, 2008

Los Angeles Times Compares Oregon Supreme Court to Brown v. Board of Education Foes in the 1950s

The Los Angeles Times ran an interesting editorial yesterday on the recent oral argument in Williams III. The editorial discussed the tortured procedural history of this case and commented that the Oregon Supreme Court's recent opinion was problematic: "When the defendant is a much-reviled tobacco company, such an end run might not seem so outrageous. But suppose lower courts in the 1950's had succeeded in frustrating the implementation of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated public schools? The court forestalled such subversion of its mandate in a 1958 decision emphasizing that 'the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution.'"

The editorial went on to make an even broader point that many state courts are not following the Supreme Court's guidance on limiting the size of punitive damage awards: "The primary issue in this third round of litigation is whether Oregon's highest court circumvented last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But that obscures another important element in this case: the continuing refusal of state courts to take seriously a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions warning that punitive damage awards may not be 'grossly excessive.' That line of cases began in 1996 with a decision striking down a $4-million award to a physician who sued BMW for not disclosing that a 'new' car he had purchased had been repainted. His actual damages were only $4,000. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court hasn't established a clear rule to determine when punitive damages become disproportionate to compensatory damages. At Wednesday's argument, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested that using the Oregon case to make a clear statement about the limits of punitive damages might be the best way to reassert the court's authority. We agree."