It – that is, deference to jury verdicts by judges – varies. Unfortunately, it varies primarily depending on whose ox is being gored. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed that the SCOTUS might be taking up the issue of which litigants get how much deference when they win, with the possible outcome being the formal recognition of what has hitherto merely been an embarrassing reality for a system that prattles on about “equal justice”: juries aren’t second guessed when they rule against little people, only when they rule against the powerful.
The question in Stevenson v. First American Title Corp. ,specifically, is whether “due process” requires no deference whatsoever to a jury’s punitive damage award, or the usual amount of deference – that being so long as a jury verdict does not slip the bounds of rationality it will stand.
Needless to say, for those who have been paying attention, the latter kind of deference is actually in practice, as well as in theory, afforded to a jury’s “guilty” verdict in a criminal case. In the former case, where a punitive damage award is almost always an award in favor of the lower status litigant against the higher one, well, in theory it’s the same deference given to criminal jury guilty verdicts. In practice it’s more often no deference at all: high punitive damage awards by juries are routinely overturned by trial judges and appellate courts. Which is to say that in practice there is a gross double standard in favor of institutional litigants but we don’t come right out and say that because it’s embarrassing.
But it’s not like anyone is fooling us here at Lawyers on Strike. We’ve been over this many times before.
The Stevens case then, should the SCOTUS take it up, will determine whether we have become so shameless that we will now explicitly endorse that double standard, or whether we’ll just continue to practice the double standard but continue to be ashamed of ourselves. I think the petition for certiorari puts it rather well:
For decades, this Court has endorsed the use of the rational-factinder test (formalized in Jackson v. Virginia, 433 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979) in a myriad of criminal and civil contexts in which the result reached in a case is attacked as insupportable on the record. The decision below is irreconcilable with this line of authority and with opinions in several of this Court’s punitive damages cases. Because the rational-factfinder test supplies adequate due process for review of criminal jury verdicts which deprive a capital defendant of his or her life, it necessarily must be regarded as adequate for review of civil jury verdicts which deprive the defendant [that is, a big insurance company – ed.] of only money.
Of course, the Petitioner here is being naive. Or perhaps not. Putting the matter as starkly as that might just alert someone at the SCOTUS that they dare not grant more special privileges to the already absurdly over-privileged. In any case, keep your fingers crossed. There’s a lot of
power money at stake.
See how important it is to follow developments in the Supreme Court?