With a precedent-setting case before the Supreme Court about whether and how much Exxon Mobil should pay in punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill that ruined lives, careers and wildlife in Alaska nearly two decades ago, the Supreme Court is hamstrung by one justice's financial ties to the world's largest and most profitable company.
Justice Samuel Alito, appointed by President Bush, owns "thousands" of shares of Exxon Mobil stock, according to the PBS NewsHour, at a value CBS News estimated between $100,000 and $250,000.
He rightly recused himself to avoid the appearance that having a quarter of a million dollars riding on a case might sway his decision. The plaintiffs, Alaskan residents (20% of whom have died since the lawsuit was first filed), seek $2.5 billion in damages for the loss of property value, ability to fish and other factors.
Oddly, his recusal may help the plaintiffs by splitting the remaining justices evenly. Because it is Exxon's appeal of a lower court's ruling, a tie goes to the Alaskans.
But such an outcome would fail to actually decide the matter, legally. How liable is a corporation, whose profits make it richer than many nations, for the damage it does in the name of profit? How much Exxon has already paid upwards of $3 billion to state and local governments, and on the cleanup itself is enough? To what degree is a company responsible for the conduct of its managers, and does a tanker captain count as a corporate manager?
A deadlock would leave those questions unanswered, which could mean the next case of this magnitude will take another 20 years to be resolved. Exxon Mobil can bank some of its record $40 billion profits from last year and use the interest to pay off its legal bills and any far-off settlements. For the aggrieved, a 20-year wait is not justice.
Supreme Court Justices, minus Samuel Alito, hear arguments
in the Exxon Valdez punitive damages case.
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