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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Retributive Damages, Privacy and Procedural Safeguards

Greetings from gorgeous Vancouver, where I'm camped out for the next month at the extraordinarily lovely and temperate surroundings of Green College at UBC.  When not teaching comparative sentencing law and policy to a group of wonderful students this coming month, I'll be working on a couple writing projects: among them, the book on family ties and criminal justice, and the first two installments of my retributive damages trilogy.

Today, I was working on Implementing Retributive Damages, the second of the trilogy, and I've been mulling over the need for procedural safeguards in the context of punitive damages. One puzzle got me thinking, about which I thought I'd invite some conversation. Here's the issue after the jump. Let me know what you think.

In an article published more than a dozen years ago, Professors Marc Galanter and David Luban argued that criminal defendants need additional procedural safeguards because of “two concerns — about the centralized power of the state and about state abuse of prisons and physical violence.” Because Galanter and Luban believe that neither concern is implicated by punitive damages – actions for punitive damages are brought by private parties who cannot obtain relief in the form of physically restrictive punishment – there is no need for increased procedural safeguards. I take issue with this conclusion in the article because it seems to me that both of these reasons are insufficiently defended. Here I want to ventilate part of that critique by focusing here on the first reason; what follows is still quite tentative so please take it in the spirit of a trial balloon rather than a conclusion of my well-considered views.

Specifically, I want to focus on the idea that the centralized power of the state as such is a reason to extend procedural safeguards to defendants. It seems to me that safeguards are necessary largely to reduce Type I errors where we either mistakenly punish someone or overpunish them compared to comparable offenders. That is, when we are punishing someone, the reason we want procedural safeguards is not to curb the centralized power of the state as such, but because of our desire to make sure that any such power is properly exercised against a particular person or entity.

One way of making this argument is by analogy to the realm of privacy intrusions. Let me explain. To my mind, a person's well-being is impaired when he suffers a setback to his interests, e.g., when the privacy of his (mis)conduct is revealed through either private or public agents. If a private investigator for a plaintiff comes rummaging (with no notice or temporary authorization through my garage,) I am still reasonably upset or resentful. I can imagine I may reasonably be even more upset when the government is the intruder instead of a private investigator for a third party—after all, the government purports to act in my name. But to the extent my choice is to shield something from exposure to public view, the legitimacy of the interest I have in keeping that information private doesn’t hinge -- does it? -- simply on whether the intruder wears the government’s badge.  [Do people have different views about this than I do? If so, why?]

Similarly, in the context of punitive damages designed to advance the public's interest in retributive justice through the use of retributive damages (for now, think of this simply as a fine, the basis of which is instigated through civil suits launched by private parties), we each, ex ante, have an interest in ensuring that the government strikes the right balance between type I and type II errors. Procedural safeguards are the primary way to reduce type I errors, and to some extent type II errors having to do with underpunishment relative to comparable offenders. From the defendant's perspective, he should want procedural safeguards to avoid the mistaken assignation of condemnation and the accompanying hard treatment, regardless of whether the person whose detection of the underlying wrong is the sovereign (public prosecutors) or private plaintiffs. In other words, a person subject to a retributive condemnation has no reason to think fewer safeguards are desirable since in both cases (privately launched or publicly launched suit), the state is making the adjudication involving condemnation and imposing the punishment.

The procedural safeguards, then, are necessary because the state has power to do things that we worry about to people, not simply because the state has power. In the context of retributive damages, the state has the power, through its courts, to enforce deprivations of property or reputation, and thus the concerns that motivate procedural safeguards in the criminal context arise, though to a lesser extent, when retributive damages are at issue. To the extent retributive damages can plausibly be said to be an intermediate sanction on the register of severity of condemnation (whether in the intensity of available punishments or the collateral consequences one might face), it would call for an intermediate level of protection against its wrongful imposition. Thus, actions involving retributive damages should exhibit more concern for Type I error reduction than is warranted in suits involving mere compensatory damages but less concern for Type I error reduction than is warranted in criminal prosecutions of defendants. Precisely how to draw that line is something I'll leave for another day.

Back to the privacy issue. There's not really much gained here by way of the analogy I suppose, but the point I think I'm making here is that just as we want protections against unwarranted intrusions against our privacy so too do we want sufficient protections against unjust imposition of punishments; and it seems to me that the scope of the protections we want does not really turn on who is the source of intrusion so much as the nature of the intrusion itself. Galanter and Luban seem to be making the contrary claim; if that's right, I can't really understand why.

Posted by Administrators on May 28, 2008 at 12:41 AM in Article Spotlight, Dan Markel, Retributive Damages | Permalink


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