Justice John Paul Stevens has been tagged by many as a “liberal.” Appellate Strategist does not propose to debate that general proposition here. Rather, it’s time to begin assessing what effect his absence might have on the growing body of Supreme Court jurisprudence that has been cutting back, a little at a time, on the blockbuster punitive damages awards that so commonly make the headlines. Or at least used to make the headlines.

Here are a few thought-provoking tidbits concerning his role in the development of this important body of law: 

  • Justice Stevens pioneered the recent punitive damages jurisprudence, authoring two of the Court’s first forays into the constitutionality of the award amounts. The first was the “granddaddy” of them all, BMW, which blazed the trail. (BMW of No. Amer. v. Gore (1996) 517 U.S. 559.)  After that came Cooper, which created an unprecedented de novo standard of review of punitive awards for constitutional excessiveness. Appellate courts were no longer constrained by the trial judges’ decision re the propriety/excessiveness of the amount. Cooper gave courts of appeal a free hand to bring the excessive “outlier” verdicts into line. (Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. (2001) 532 U.S. 424.)
  • He joined in the Campbell majority opinion, the behemoth that expanded the defendant’s constitutional rights beyond a mere review for excessiveness of the amount. (State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell (2003) 538 U.S. 408.)
  • He dissented in Williams. He still believed that due process imposes both substantive and procedural constraints on State power to impose punitive damages, but Williams presented a different issue. The majority held the State may not punish the defendant with punitive damages for harming other victims who were not plaintiffs and not before the jury. (Philip Morris USA v. Williams (2007) 549 U.S. 346.) Justice Stevens saw “no reason why an interest in punishing a wrongdoer ‛for harming persons who are not before the court,’ should not be taken into consideration when assessing the appropriate sanction for reprehensible conduct.” (Citation omitted.)
  • We discount the Court’s most recent decision, Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (2008) 128 S.Ct. 2605, which presented unique issues of punitive damages under federal maritime law, and anyway, there are so many separate opinions and joinders, it would take a computer program to keep the justices’ various positions straight.

These cases have revolutionized the law of punitive damages, helped level the once-tilted playing field, and afforded them relief – in the form of reduced awards – awards that a few years ago were often rubberstamped on appeal as within the jury’s discretion. Countless billions – literally – “billions” with a “b” – have been saved thanks to these legal developments. He clearly made an important contribution.

Now the burning question is: where will the successor stand? In a series of future posts, Appellate Strategist will try to explore that question, and perhaps even offer some answers.