Posted Mar 21, 2012 01:35 pm CDT
A lawyer representing a natural gas company argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that a multimillion-dollar environmental fine for illegally storing mercury cannot stand because the judge who imposed it referred to facts not found by a jury.
The case raised issues about the reach of the 2000 decision Apprendi v. New Jersey, which said the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial barred judges from increasing prison sentences beyond the statutory maximum based on facts that aren’t submitted to a jury. The New York Times, the Daily Environment Report and the Associated Press have stories on the oral arguments.
According to the Times, “The real issue in the case, as the justices’ questioning made clear, was whether the court remained committed to the logic” of Apprendi. A lawyer for the federal government, Michael Dreeben, supported the fine, saying deprivations of life and liberty get greater protection than financial penalties.
The case is Southern Union Co. v. United States. A federal judge had imposed a $6 million fine and a $12 million “community service obligation” against Southern Union after jurors found the company guilty of an environmental violation, according to the cert petition. The company argues it is liable for, at most, $50,000 under a statute that sets the amount as the maximum for one day’s violation. Jurors were not asked to determine how many days Southern Union violated the law.
ABAJournal.com: “Must Juries Decide Facts Leading to Higher Criminal Fines? Supreme Court to Decide”