Supreme Court Action: Restitution to Victims in Child Pornography Cases and Habeas Corpus

The Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning.  The first, Paroline v. United States (12-8561), concerns how victims of child pornography abuse can recover under the restitution provision in the child pornography statutes, 18 U.S.C. §2259.  Paroline was convicted of possessing child pornography.  Paroline possessed two images of the victim in this case, identified as Amy.  She sought almost $3 million dollars in lost income and some $500,000 in treatment and counseling costs.  The statute requires a proximate cause relationship to establish the amount of damages to award.  The District Court declined to award damages because the Government, in its view, did not establish what losses were caused by Paroline.  The Fifth Circuit held that Paroline could be held liable for the victim’s entire losses.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case.  The Court stated that restitution is mandatory under the statute.  Its analysis focused on the difficulty of calculating damages proximately caused by a single defendant compared to the aggregate possessors of images, some convicted and some not.  Defendants should only be liable for their own actions and not that of others.  As such, the question revolves around the proper causation standard for calculating damages.

The Government argued that a tort standard should apply as each defendant could seek contribution from other possessors.  The Court rejected that approach stating there are no federal rights to contribution and no statutory authority for it.  Rather a court may look at the larger picture of trafficking and determine the defendant’s relative role in that scheme in basing its award.  The Court acknowledges that this may be difficult to implement as a practical matter.  It offered no further guidance.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan.  Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas.  Chief Justice Roberts argued that the statutory standard is unworkable in calculating damages and none should be awarded.  Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion stating that the Court should use the tort standard rejected by the majority.

The second case is White v. Woodall (12-794).  It concerns the grant of habeas corpus to a defendant over a refused jury instruction at trial.  Woodall pleaded guilty to various capital charges.  His counsel requested an instruction to the jury that it not draw any adverse reaction from the defendant’s decision not to testify at the penalty phase.  The trial court denied the request and Woodall was sentenced to death.  The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed on the basis that the Fifth Amendment does not require the instruction in the penalty phase.   The Federal District Court granted habeas relief holding that the lack on the instruction violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed.  The Court declined to rule as whether the lack of the instruction violated the Fifth Amendment.  It focused instead on the language of the federal habeas corpus statute instructing a court to issue the writ if the state court decision conflicted with clearly established law as defined by the Supreme Court.  The Court reviewed its precedent relative to the issue and stated that the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision was not objectively unreasonable in light of that precedent.  It further noted that it declined to take up the case earlier when the defendant filed a cert petition on direct appeal.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Kagan.  Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  Justice Breyer reviews the same precedent and comes to the opposite conclusion from that of the majority. –Mark

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