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US Supreme Court takes up tobacco case for third time

The case involves an ongoing tug of war between the high court and the highest court in Oregon.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2008


Mayola Williams has been fighting cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris for nine years to collect $79.5 million in punitive damages on behalf of her late husband. In fact, the case has been in litigation so long that the award – with interest – now exceeds $145 million.

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On Wednesday, lawyers for Ms. Williams and Philip Morris returned to the Supreme Court for a third time to face a lineup of justices who are deeply divided over the case. At the center of the most recent dispute is an ongoing tug of war between America's highest court and the highest court in Oregon. The controversy raises thorny issues of supremacy at the intersection of a multitiered court system designed to balance state and federal power.

Twice the US Supreme Court asked the Oregon courts to reexamine Williams's award to make sure that it complies with constitutional safeguards against excessive punishment. Twice the Oregon courts have upheld the original $79.5 million verdict. Both times, Philip Morris asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

How a majority of justices might resolve the dispute remained unclear by the conclusion of Wednesday's hour-long oral argument.

At issue in this latest version of Philip Morris v. Williams (07-1216) is whether the Supreme Court of Oregon acted properly when it sidestepped a US Supreme Court decision ordering the Oregon courts to apply a federal due process standard to the case and then consider reducing the amount of the award or order a new trial.

Instead, the Oregon Supreme Court avoided applying the US Supreme Court's federal constitutional analysis and announced that it was upholding the $79.5 million award solely on state law grounds.

"It is truly a game of gotcha that just nullifies the defendant's due process rights," Philip Morris's lawyer Stephen Shapiro told the justices.

Williams' lawyer Robert Peck countered that the US Supreme Court's order was conditional and that the Oregon high court had relied on a 92-year-old state law rule supporting its decision.

Mr. Peck said state courts retain the flexibility to identify a procedure under state law to address the due process issue raised by the US Supreme Court.

Justice Stephen Breyer said that his thinking about the case had evolved. He said when the appeal was first presented he considered the Oregon high court's actions a "run-around." He added, "I'm not sure I think that now."

Later in the argument, Justice Breyer asked why the Oregon high court hadn't raised the state law issue earlier in the case "and saved everybody a lot of trouble."

Justice Antonin Scalia asked if Peck was arguing that the Supreme Court's remand order to the Oregon court was in error. He added, "If you say it's in error, my next question is going to be is it up to a state court to sit in judgment about whether our remand orders are in error or not?"