In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided May 16, 1988

Justice O’Connor, Concurring

Topic: Economic Activity*Court vote: 6–1
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.
Citation: 486 U.S. 71 Docket: 85–1765Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom JUSTICE SCALIA joins, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

I do not agree with the Court's analysis of our jurisdiction over appellant's federal due process claim. I therefore do not join Part II or footnote 1 of the Court's opinion. I join the remainder of the opinion, and I agree with the analysis of Part II insofar as claims under the Excessive Fines Clause and Contract Clause are concerned. Moreover, for the reasons given below, I ultimately concur in the Court's judgment with respect to the due process claim as well.

In its brief on appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, appellant expressly invoked the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and argued that Mississippi law chilled its fundamental right of access to the courts by authorizing unlimited punitive damages. App. to Juris. Statement 135a. The Court does not acknowledge this argument in its discussion of why the due process claim was not raised and passed upon below, but only notes that appellant did not present a due process argument clearly in its petition for rehearing. Ante at 486 U. S. 77. The Court suggests that it need not consider the due process argument raised in appellant's brief to the Mississippi Supreme Court because it is "distinct from the attack on the size of the particular award that appellant has waged before this Court." Ante at 486 U. S. 75, n. 1. Standing alone, this observation is insufficient to deprive this Court of jurisdiction over appellant's due process claim.

Parties are not confined here to the same arguments which were advanced in the courts below upon a Federal question there discussed.

Dewey v. Des Moines, 173 U. S. 193, 173 U. S. 197 -198 (1899). See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213, 462 U. S. 248 (1983) (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment).

Accordingly, the Court should examine the federal due process argument that appellant makes in this Court to determine whether it is "only an enlargement" of the due process argument it raised below. See Dewey, supra, at 173 U. S. 197. In its principal brief in this Court, appellant contends that the Mississippi Supreme Court changed its standard for judging when an insurer may be liable for punitive damages and applied the new standard retroactively to this case. Appellant explains that it therefore had no advance notice of what conduct could render it liable for punitive damages. Citing cases in which this Court has struck down criminal statutes as void for vagueness, e.g., Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U. S. 609 (1984); Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U. S. 399 (1966), appellant maintains that this violated the Due Process Clause. Brief for Appellant 40-43. Then, in a supplemental brief filed after argument with the Court's leave, appellant expands the due process argument pressed below and mounts a more general attack on permitting juries to impose unlimited punitive damages on an ad hoc basis. Post-argument Brief for Appellant 4-10.

Appellant has touched on a due process issue that I think is worthy of the Court's attention in an appropriate case. Mississippi law gives juries discretion to award any amount of punitive damages in any tort case in which a defendant acts with a certain mental state. In my view, because of the punitive character of such awards, there is reason to think that this may violate the Due Process Clause.

Punitive damages are awarded not to compensate for injury but, rather, "to punish reprehensible conduct and to deter its future occurrence." Gertz v. Welch, Inc., 418 U. S. 323, 418 U. S. 350 (1974). Punitive damages are not measured against actual injury, so there is no objective standard that limits their amount. Hence, "the impact of these windfall recoveries is unpredictable, and potentially substantial." Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U. S. 42, 442 U. S. 50 (1979). For these reasons, the Court has forbidden the award of punitive damages in defamation suits brought by private plaintiffs, Gertz, supra, at 418 U. S. 349 -350, and in unfair representation suits brought against unions under the Railway Labor Act, Electrical Workers, supra, at 442 U. S. 52. For similar reasons, the Court should scrutinize carefully the procedures under which punitive damages are awarded in civil lawsuits.

Under Mississippi law, the jury may award punitive damages for any common law tort committed with a certain mental state, that is, "for a willful and intentional wrong, or for such gross negligence and reckless negligence as is equivalent to such a wrong." 483 So.2d 254, 269 (Miss.1985) (opinion below). Although this standard may describe the required mental state with sufficient precision, the amount of the penalty that may ensue is left completely indeterminate. As the Mississippi Supreme Court said, "the determination of the amount of punitive damages is a matter committed solely to the authority and discretion of the jury." Id. at 278. This grant of wholly standardless discretion to determine the severity of punishment appears inconsistent with due process. The Court has recognized that

vague sentencing provisions may pose constitutional questions if they do not state with sufficient clarity the consequences of violating a given criminal statute.

United States v. Batchelder, 442 U. S. 114, 442 U. S. 123 (1979). Nothing in Mississippi law warned appellant that, by committing a tort that caused $20,000 of actual damages, it could expect to incur a $1.6 million punitive damages award.

This due process question, serious as it is, should not be decided today. The argument was not appellant's principal submission to this Court. The analysis in the briefs and the discussion at oral argument were correspondingly abbreviated. Although the Court could assert jurisdiction over the due process question on the theory that the argument made here was a "mere enlargement" of the due process argument raised below, it would not be prudent to do so. Accordingly, I concur in the Court's judgment on this question, and would leave for another day the consideration of these issues.

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