[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; briefs] Wednesday in two cases. In Philip Morris USA v. Williams [oral arguments transcript, PDF], the Court considered for a third time a $79.5 million punitive damages verdict against Philip Morris USA [corporate website]. The Court previously ruled [JURIST report] that the punitive damages award based "in part on [a jury's] desire to punish the defendant for harming persons who are not before the court" amounts to an unconstitutional taking of property without due process. On remand, the Supreme Court of Oregon [official website] again upheld [opinion text] the verdict, finding that it did not need to reach the federal constitutional issue if there was "an independent and adequate" basis in state law for upholding the verdict. Counsel for petitioner Philip Morris argued that "the Oregon court failed to follow this Court's directions on remand and . . . the ground it gave is not adequate to show a forfeiture of due process rights." Counsel for respondent argued, "This Court's constitutional mandate in this case is conditioned in several significant respects, and it invites the discretion and judgment of a State court that's applying it."
In Haywood v. Drown [oral arguments transcript, PDF] the Court heard arguments on whether a states withdrawal of jurisdiction over certain damages claims against state corrections employees may be constitutionally applied to exclude federal claims under USC Section 1983 [text], especially when the state legislature withdrew jurisdiction because it concluded that permitting such lawsuits is bad policy. Petitioner Haywood brought two section 1983 suits against corrections employees. The trial court dismissed both cases, finding his lawsuits were barred by New York Correction Law § 24 [text], which prevents state trial courts from hearing claims for money damages against prison employees whether based on federal or state law. Both the intermediate appellate court and the Court of Appeals of New York [official website] affirmed [opinion, PDF]. Counsel for petitioner argued that the
statute relegates Mr. Haywood and anyone else seeking money damages under section 1983 to either bring their case in Federal court or to accept what the New York legislature has deemed a State law alternative. That State law alternative does not allow Mr. Haywood to sue the prison guards who violated his civil rights; instead he can only sue the State.Counsel for the state of New York acknowledged that "The Federal Constitution permits State courts to hear Federal claims, but it does not require a State to hear them so long as the State does not discriminate against Federal claims in comparison with similar State claims. New York's statute fully satisfies that requirement."