Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Court favors states’ rights

For the rich and the favored, states’ rights has always been a handy principle, but there are times when it gets in the way. For example, when a big tobacco company wants to avoid liability.

In a surprising siege of unanimity, the United States Supreme Court said tobacco companies could be sued in a state court in front of a jury chosen under state laws and before an elected state judge. Two Arkansas women — one has since left the state — tried to sue Philip Morris four years ago in the Pulaski County Circuit Court claiming that their health was jeopardized by misleading advertising about the healthful qualities of light cigarettes. The company objected that the state court did not have jurisdiction because the federal government stringently regulated tobacco. They would have to sue in federal court. A federal district judge and, not surprisingly, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis agreed.

The tobacco lawyers did not argue that the commerce clause of the Constitution dictated it — the usual state v. federal doctrine — but rather that suing the tobacco companies was the same as suing the federal government. Uncle Sam was in loco parentis, or something like that. That really was the argument and we would have guessed that the new ultraconservative majority on the Supreme Court would have adopted it just like the Eighth Circuit did. The theory was that because the offending light cigarettes were regulated by federal agencies, the company was operating under supervising federal officials. That made Philip Morris the same as a branch of the federal government, and the federal government cannot be sued for damages in a state court.

What do you think of that argument? The Supreme Court — all nine justices — did not care for it either. If the tobacco companies were subcontractors making products for the federal government, say nicotine canisters for the Department of Defense, it might be another matter. Tobacco companies, which have been fighting product liability battles for years, prefer the federal courts, where judges and juries have been far more stinting on judgments than state courts.

Tobacco companies, drug manufacturers, automakers and other manufacturers are especially fearful of trial in states with elected judges, like Arkansas, suspecting that they are more prone to consider the suffering of people. We don’t know if that is true, but it does not matter. State courts are particularly suited to try torts, which is a legal issue largely framed by state law. Justice is swifter and nowadays just about as sure in state courts as in the tenured federal system.

Good decision, Supreme Court! States’ rights are alive and well.