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Supreme Court Rules on Exxon Oil Spill, Child Rape

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Supreme Court is wrapping up its term. That means several blockbuster decisions coming down all at once. In the past hour, the justices have issued two major rulings. One deals with the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The other: the death penalty for the rape of a child. NPR's Ari Shapiro covers legal issues, and this week, you're hearing him hosting this program. And Ari, I'm going to have you switch back to your old hat…

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Sure.

MONTAGNE: And talk to us about both of these cases. Let's begin with Exxon Valdez. This - at issue here was huge punitive damages.

SHAPIRO: That's right. They were the largest punitive damages ever upheld by a federal appeals court. Exxon was asked to pay - told to pay, rather - two-and-a-half-billion dollars for the oil spill that took place almost 20 years ago in Alaska. That was in addition to $3.4 billion in criminal fines, clean up costs and compensation payments. And so the question in this case was is the two and a half billion in punitive damages too much?

MONTAGNE: And the justices said yes.

SHAPIRO: Yes, they did. It was 5-3 ruling. Justice David Souter was in the majority. He wrote the opinion. And he said the punitive damages have to equal the compensation payments. And so when you do the math in this case, it means that instead of paying two-and-a-half-billion dollars, Exxon Mobil will just have to pay a little over 500 million. Small change, right?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But for Exxon Valdez, probably - certainly a better deal than the previous one.

SHAPIRO: Than the two and a half billion. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Now the death penalty case. Here, we are talking about a death penalty in the rape of a child.

SHAPIRO: Right. It was a challenge to a law in Louisiana that said child rapists could be executed for their crime. And the question was is that excessive? Does it violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment? And in 5-4 ruling, the justices said yes. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote this opinion. He's been the swing justice for the last couple of years. And it was a pretty broad ruling. He said if a crime does not result in death, it cannot lead to the death penalty for the criminal. So the Louisiana law is invalidated by this ruling, and there's a very similar law that recently passed in Texas that may be invalidated by this ruling, as well.

MONTAGNE: And inappropriate meaning cruel and unusual?

SHAPIRO: That's right. It's an unconstitutional law based on the fact that according to Justice Kennedy's ruling today, you cannot give somebody the death penalty for a crime that does not result in death.

MONTAGNE: One more major decision we're still waiting for this morning.

SHAPIRO: That's right. And this is perhaps the biggest Constitutional question of the year, of a very long time. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a weapon, or whether it's a collective right. In fact, this is the first Second Amendment the Supreme Court has heard in nearly 70 years. When the justices issue a ruling, it will be a huge earthquake in the Constitutional law world. This case came about as a challenge to the District of Columbia's gun control law, which is one of the strictest gun control laws in the country. At oral arguments, the justices suggested that a majority believe there is an individual right to own a gun. The chief justice has just said that that ruling will come down tomorrow, so watch this space.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is a legal expert for NPR on most days, talking to us about two major Supreme Court decisions that came down this hour. The court ruled against the death penalty for people convicted of child rape, and it reduced the punitive damages against Exxon Valdez for the oil spill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.