- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Supreme Court on Wednesday outlawed executions of people convicted of raping a child.

The high court also slashed the $2.5 billion punitive damages award in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to $500 million.

The rulings were two of three key decisions the Supreme Court is expected to announce before recessing for the summer. The court’s ruling on the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns is expected to be released Thursday.

In a 5-4 vote, the court said the Louisiana law allowing the death penalty to be imposed for raping a child violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.

His four liberal colleagues joined him, while the four more conservative justices dissented.

There has not been an execution in the United States for a crime that did not also involve the death of the victim in 44 years.

Patrick Kennedy, 43, was sentenced to death for the rape of his 8-year-old stepdaughter in Louisiana. He is one of two people in the United States, both in Louisiana, who have been condemned to death for a rape that was not also accompanied by a killing.

The Supreme Court banned executions for rape in 1977 in a case in which the victim was an adult woman.

Forty-five states ban the death penalty for any kind of rape, and the other five states allow it for child rapists. Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas allow executions in such cases if the defendant had previously been convicted of raping a child.

In a 5-3 decision in the Exxon Valdez case, the court ruled that victims of the worst oil spill in U.S. history may collect punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp., but not as much as a federal appeals court determined.

Justice David Souter wrote for the court that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses, about $500 million compensation.

Justice Souter said a penalty should be “reasonably predictable” in its severity.

Exxon asked the high court to reject the punitive damages judgment, saying it already has spent $3.4 billion in response to the accident that fouled 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline.

A jury decided Exxon should pay $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut that verdict in half in 1994.

The Supreme Court divided on its decision, 5-3, with Justice Samuel Alito taking no part in the case because he owns Exxon stock.

Exxon has fought vigorously to reduce or erase the punitive damages verdict by a jury in Alaska four years ago for the accident that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

The environmental disaster led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

Nearly 33,000 Alaskans are in line to share in the award, about $15,000 a person. They would have collected $75,000 each under the $2.5 billion judgment.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens supported the $2.5 billion figure for punitive damages, saying Congress has chosen not to impose restrictions in such circumstances.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented, saying the court was engaging in “lawmaking” by concluding that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses.

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