Court rules on Exxon punitives, death penalty, Confrontation Clause and more

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down some of the term’s most anticipated decisions.

In Exxon v. Baker, the Court vacated a punitive damages award against the oil company based on the actions of its agents in the massive oil spill off Alaska’s coast. Eight justices (Justice Samuel Alito took no part in the case) split evenly on the issue of whether punitive damages are allowed under maritime law, but all the justices found the $2.5 billion punitive award to be excessive, holding that it should not exceed the compensatory award of $507.5 million. (Lawyers USA subscribers can read past coverage of the case here.)

In a 5-4 opinion, with Justice Anthony Kennedy once again in the role o swing voter, the Court in Kennedy v. Louisiana struck down a state statute that made child rape an offense that could be punishable by death. The Court held that only offenses resulting in death can warrant the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment. The case in effect strikes down not only the Louisiana statute, but similar laws in states including Florida, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas.

In Giles v. California, the Court held that a murder defendant does not forfeit his rights under the Confrontation Clause when a witness is unavailable because he killed her. Only the testimony of witnesses killed for the purpose of preventing them from testifying results in a forfeiture.

And finally in Plains Commerce v. Long Family Land and Cattle, the Court held that Indian tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over disputes between companies owned by members of the tribe and companies that are not, even if the non-member company operates on a reservation.

The last three remaining decisions of the term, including the Second Amendment case D.C. v. Heller, will be delivered by the Court tomorrow.

More on these cases today on Lawyers USA’s website. Also keep an eye out for analyses on many of these cases on the website in the days ahead, and in the next issue of the paper.

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