Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Supreme Court's 2002-2003 Term

Other Constitutional Issues

In the 2002-2003 term, the Court ruled on a pair of cases that addressed two different states’ sex offender registration laws, holding in each case for the state. In Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, 123 S. Ct. 1160 (2003), a unanimous judgment of the Court agreed that Connecticut’s Megan’s Law did not violate procedural due process by making available to the public information about convicted sex offenders regardless of their level of dangerousness. The Court stated that mere injury to reputation is not a deprivation of a liberty interest, and Connecticut’s statute applies regardless of a convicted offender’s risk of repeating the offense. Thus, there was no lack of procedural due process based on a failure to determine the dangerousness of the offender. In his concurring opinion, Justice Scalia stated that “[a]bsent a claim… that the liberty interest in question is so fundamental as to implicate so-called ‘substantive’ due process, a properly enacted law can eliminate it.” 123 S. Ct. at 1165.

In Smith v. Doe, 123 S. Ct. 1140 (2003), a splintered Court held that the Alaska Sex Offender Registration Act (ASORA) did not violate the Constitution’s ex post facto clause in its retroactive application to all sex offenders within the state of Alaska, since the Act was deemed by the majority to be nonpunitive. Five Justices held that the statute was a civil regulatory scheme, and nothing on the face of the legislation stated otherwise. Furthermore, the majority, comprised of Justices Kennedy, O’Connor, Scalia, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist, found that as applied, the statute was not “so punitive either in purpose or effect” as to negate the intention of the State to deem it civil. 123 S. Ct. at 1147. Justice Souter concurred in the judgment, stating that while the civil and punitive elements were “in rough equipoise,” the scale was tipped in favor of civil intent since state laws are afforded a presumption of constitutionality. Id. at 1156. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer dissented from the majority judgment, finding that the statute had clear and far-reaching punitive effects and thus violated the ex post facto clause in its retroactive application.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 123 S. Ct. 1513 (2003), provided the Court with another opportunity to rule on the issue of excessive punitive damage awards under the Due Process Clause. Faced with a lower court decision awarding compensatory damages in the amount of $1 million and punitive damages in the amount of $145 million, six Justices held that these punitive damages were so excessive as to violate the Due Process Clause. Since punitive damages pose a risk of arbitrary deprivation of property, the majority explained, courts reviewing such awards should consider a variety of factors in order to ensure that such damage awards are justified. Such factors include the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct, the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive award, and the difference between the punitive award and the civil penalties imposed in similar cases. The majority ruled that an analysis of those factors in this case demonstrated that $145 million in punitive damages was excessive and that a much lower level of punitive damages would have accomplished the legitimate objectives of the state in deterring such conduct. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg claimed that the award of punitive damages was a matter traditionally determined by the states and that the propriety of such damages should not be adjudged by federal courts. Justices Scalia and Thomas also dissented, arguing that the Constitution does not constrain the size of punitive damage awards.

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