In 1989, Exxon Mobil caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The accident, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of marine wildlife, and caused 33,000 Alaskans to file for compensation for economic loss and punitive damages.
They are still waiting to be paid.
It seems paradoxical that, in an age where it is apparent that big oil represents an outdated form of energy supply, oil companies are still trying to rake in the big bucks. After being charged in 1994 for punitive damages, Exxon, preparing to launch a long, drawn out fight against the decision, put aside the amount they owed in a private account; now, the amount that Exxon owes essentially equals the interest that they've made from that account. Fossil fuels represent our past, not our future, so why would the Supreme court come to big oil's rescue?
You've probably heard by now that the Supreme Court let Exxon off the hook for $2 billion in punitive damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the worst in the nation's history.
To put that $2 billion into perspective: That's roughly the net profit Exxon earns every three weeks, but not enough to "rebuild the dying town and businesses the Valdez has left behind," as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out on Slate a few months ago.
Yet it's a bit much for five business-friendly members of this Supreme Court.
Talk about judicial activism. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, the court had little to no legal basis for reducing the punitive damages awarded by lower courts. "The new law made by the court should have been left to Congress," she wrote.
Why is the current conservative court so boldly crossing the line that, if you believe most right-wingers, should "separate law-interpreting from law-making in our courts"?
For answers, check out the March New York Times Magazine story on "Supreme Court, Inc.", which notes the increasing frequency with which the nation's highest court is siding with corporate interests. In its first two terms, the Roberts Court has ruled in favor of corporate defendants in every antitrust case it took on. Every single case.
As the Times Magazine notes, "A generation ago, progressive and consumer groups petitioning the court could count on favorable majority opinions written by justices who viewed big business with skepticism." But no more. Further, it notes that this sea change in the court "represents the culmination of a carefully planned, behind-the-scenes campaign over several decades to change not only the courts, but the country's political culture."
Change of a different nature is in the air this year. But if we're going to repair the damage being wrought by this court in the Exxon Valdez case and others, if we're going to someday replace the corporate judges who now dominate our federal courts with judges who rule according to the law and in favor of the people, we need to raise our voices, we need to organize our friends and neighbors, and we need to start now. Click here to send a message to Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, to make a commitment to stopping future corporate judges from joining the Supreme Court.