Supreme Court Ends Term with Tough Decisions

The Supreme Court is in recess for the summer, but the justices ended this week with some major and very close decisions. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg talks with Scott Simon about the end of the court term.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. Supreme Court is in recess for the summer, but the justices ended the week with some major and very close decisions. NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, joins us. Thanks for being with us, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And let's take them one by one. Exxon Mobil cut a break this week. The court ruled it didn't have to pay such large punitive damages for the 1989 Prince William Sound oil spill.

TOTENBERG: This was a gargantuan 11-million-gallon oil spill into Prince William Sound. The jury actually awarded economic damages of about 500,000 dollars to the fishermen who brought this case, plus five billion in punitive damages. That was subsequently knocked down to about two and a half billion, a ratio of five to one. And the Supreme Court thought that that was too far out of line with the actual 500,000 dollar damages and that the ratio shouldn't be any more than one to one.

SIMON: Does this set a new standard for limits on punitive damages?

TOTENBERG: Well, the business community has been trying to make that happen. This, however, was a decision on maritime law where the justices have a lot of discretion. When they rule on punitive damages in state court cases, on appeals from state court cases, they've set a guideline of nine to one, which actually would have kept intact the original judgment here. So this decision likely only has immediate effect on big coastal spills involving ships, which I suppose is not insignificant in an era when we're talking about more offshore oil drilling.

SIMON: The justices had another tightrope this week in a death penalty decision, a five-to-four against applying the death penalty for child rape.

TOTENBERG: Well, the court drew a line it had never explicitly drawn before, although it came very close. The court said basically if you don't kill somebody in an individual case - we're not talking about espionage or a crime against the state - but if you don't kill somebody, you're not eligible for the death penalty. To put this in sort of jargon-like terms, an eye for an eye. And if somebody isn't dead you can't kill them. That's cruel and unusual punishment. It's an excessive punishment.

SIMON: And of course, finally, the right to own a gun. For years, there's been an ongoing debate about whether the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, is connected to military service or is individual and personal. The court delivered an answer this week.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. The Second Amendment's phrasing which begins "a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state," that language has for nearly a century been interpreted by the court as hinging the right to keep and bear arms to military service of some kind. But the question was never directly confronted until this week. And what the court said by a slim one-vote majority was that this is a personal right, not a collective right somehow associated with military service. In short, that you've got the right to own a gun in your home and not to have it trigger locked.

TOTENBERG: The District of Columbia had required trigger locks. And the court said no, that that's too much. That doesn't mean, of course, that everything is settled. In fact, you could say anything but. Around the country, lawsuits are being drawn up to test laws about who can own guns, waiting periods, where they can be carried, the types of gun, ammunition. Just years worth of lawsuits.

SIMON: And finally, reflections on political effect?

TOTENBERG: Well, it's kind of interesting because I think this will take this off the table for the presidential election. That's the short run. The longer-run question, about which one can only sort of speculate, is that it could make things harder for groups like the NRA since there no longer is the specter of the government confiscating personal weapons.

SIMON: NPR's Nina Totenberg. Thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Scott.

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