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Bread and Circuses

The big news out of the US Supreme Court this week was the decision in Phillip Morris USA v. Williams, which tossed out an $80 million punitive damage award to a widow of a lung cancer victim.  I'd discussed the case a while back, and I'm not surprised by the result.  The court's decision, on the other hand, is not a model of clarity:  rather than setting forth some clear explanation of how punitive damages can be awarded, the Court focused on the Oregon high court's finding that the award was justifiable because of the great harm caused by cigarette smoking.  The Supremes, in a 5-4 decision, said this was a no-no, because it essentially considered the damage to non-parties.  On the other hand, the majority held that a jury could consider the "reprehensibility" of the defendant's conduct, in other words, the harm that its actions caused society.  Justice Stevens found, somewhat understandably, that "this nuance eludes me."  Stevens was joined in dissent by Ginsberg, Scalia, and Thomas, an alignment that is probably one of the twelve signs of the Apocalypse.

Speaking of which, future generations will undoubtedly determine that this week provided another data point in our glide path toward Romanesque decadence:  while the Vice President's former chief of staff was on trial in a case involving the reasons we went to war in Iraq, the legal matter which consumed everyone's attention was the hearing to determine where to bury Anna Nicole Smith, whose sole achievement in a life of excess was to take the motto "you can marry more in an afternoon than you can earn in a lifetime" to vulturous new heights.

And as if to prove the truth of a long-dead playwright's observation that "it is difficult not to write satire," it turns out that Larry Seidlin, the judge in the Smith hearing, has provided a demo tape to a network to audition for his own series, a la Judge Judy et al.  As Smith could have told him, the road to stardom has bumps, and his cause wasn't helped by his somewhat macabre announcement before the hearing that Smith's body "belongs to me now" and "that baby is in a cold, cold storage room."

But when it comes to macabre, there's no topping Andrew Thomas, the prosecuting attorney for Maricopa County, Arizona.  He came into office promising to emphasize capital punishment, and he's been as good as his word:  Maricopa County now has 130 pending death penalty cases.  Doug Furman at the always-excellent Law and Sentencing Policy blog puts this into perspective:

  • Since Furman, Arizona has only executed 22 persons over the last three decades.

  • Since Furman, no state other than Texas has executed more than 100 persons

  • Last year, only roughly 115 death sentences were handed out nationwide

Another measure is that Los Angeles County, with twice the population, has only a quarter that many pending death penalty cases.  As this newspaper article points out, Thomas' focus has put serious strains on the system:  the county is running out of lawyers to handle capital cases, and the Arizona Supreme Court, which handles the direct appeal of all such cases, is contemplating hiring additional staff and possibly even creating panels of judges to handle the load when it comes.

Well, if they need more judges, I can think of someone who's looking for work, as long as they stick a camera in his face.

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