Punitive damages and the Supreme Court

I have written a piece on the Philip Morris v. Williams case for the Business and Media Institute. For other views, see Anthony Sebok (Brooklyn Law), Alan Morrison (Public Citizen), and Adam Cohen (New York Times). Morrison argues that the federal courts have no role in reviewing state-court decisions, which makes one wonder what his position is on habeas corpus. Cohen’s op-ed misstates what happened in Andrade, which was a case of collateral (and thus limited) review, rather than a direct appeal, like Williams, where a civil defendant does not even have the option of collateral review.

Earlier on Point of Law (from which this was cross-posted): Oct. 12; May 30; Feb. 2.

Update: The American Constitution Society press briefing on Philip Morris v. Williams (in which I participated with Peter Rubin, Neil Vidmar, and Bill Schultz) is now online.


  • Punitive damages are punitive and hence criminal in nature- Should safeguards such as the criminal burden of proof be constitutionally required?

  • Morrison is a true-blue Nader Raider, but here he seems to adopt a near-Borkean approach to the authority of the Supreme Court over this issue:

      The Court in State Farm focused on the need for some proportionality between compensatory damages and the amount of punitives, with the Court suggesting that, except where actual damages are very low, or in very unusual circumstances, a ratio beyond 9:1 would be excessive. If a legislature did that, we could argue abut the numbers, but not the approach, but when did the Supreme Court receive legislative powers? There are numbers in the Constitution when bright lines are useful – ages for voting or holding certain office, the amount in controversy for which jury trials must be maintained, and the terms for federal officeholders – yet there is nothing about magic numbers for punitive damages, let alone that the Supreme Court has the right to decide them.
  • “Punitive damages are punitive and hence criminal in nature”

    Punitive damages obtained in a civil case are not criminal in anyway. They are not brought by a prosecutor. The defendant does not have a right to a court appointed attorney. A sentence is never given. And, most importantly, incarceration is never imposed.

  • So you are saying that: If the only punishment for a particular crime is a fine then the constitutional burden of proof could be less than Beyond reasonable doubt?