A cigarette maker and a smoker's widow squared off at the Supreme Court on Wednesday for the third time over a $79.5 million punitive damages award, but the real battle was between the justices and their counterparts on Oregon's high court.
Twice before, the Supreme Court has struck down the judgment against Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA and ordered the Oregon court to take another look at the case. Each time, the Oregon high court has upheld the award to Mayola Williams, the widow of a longtime smoker of Philip Morris' Marlboro brand.
In its latest appeal, Philip Morris contended the Oregon judges were essentially thumbing their noses at the Supreme Court. "We're here today because the Oregon court failed to follow this court's decision," Philip Morris' lawyer, Stephen Shapiro, told the justices.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who sided with Philip Morris in its last round, was more skeptical of the cigarette maker's arguments Wednesday.
At first, Breyer said, "I thought this was a runaround. I'm not sure I think that now."
At the same time, however, the justices worried that state courts could ignore Supreme Court rulings on constitutional issues.
"How do we guard against making constitutional decisions which are simply going to be nullified by some clever device?" Justice David Souter asked.
Robert Peck, Williams' lawyer, tried to allay the concern. "There was no sandbagging here," Peck said. "The Oregon Supreme Court did not act in bad faith."