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Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Haslip (89-1279), 499 U.S. 1 (1991)
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PACIFIC MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE CO. v. HASLIP, et al.

No. 89-1279

[March 4, 1991]

Justice Kennedy, concurring in the judgment.

Historical acceptance of legal institutions serves to validate them not because history provides the most convenient rule of decision but because we have confidence that a long-accepted legal institution would not have survived if it rested upon procedures found to be either irrational or unfair. For this reason, Justice Scalia's historical approach to questions of procedural due process has much to commend it. I cannot say with the confidence maintained by Justice Scalia, however, that widespread adherence to a historical practice always forecloses further inquiry when a party challenges an ancient institution or procedure as violative of due process. But I agree that the judgment of history should govern the outcome in the case before us. Jury determination of punitive damages has such long and principled recognition as a central part of our system that no further evidence of its essential fairness or rationality ought to be deemed necessary.

Our legal tradition is one of progress from fiat to rationality. The evolution of the jury illustrates this principle. From the 13th or 14th century onward, the verdict of the jury found gradual acceptance not as a matter of ipse dixit, the basis for verdicts in trials by ordeal which the jury came to displace, but instead because the verdict was based upon rational procedures. See Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 120-131 (5th ed. 1956). Elements of whim and caprice do not predominate when the jury reaches a consensus based upon arguments of counsel, the presentation of evidence, and instructions from the trial judge, subject to review by the trial and appellate courts. There is a principled justification too in the composition of the jury, for its representative character permits its verdicts to express the sense of the community.

Some inconsistency of jury results can be expected for at least two reasons. First, the jury is empanelled to act as a decisionmaker in a single case, not as a more permanent body. As a necessary consequence of their case-by-case existence, juries may tend to reach disparate outcomes based on the same instructions. Second, the generality of the instructions may contribute to a certain lack of predictability. The law encompasses standards phrased at varying levels of generality. As with other adjudicators, the jury may be instructed to follow a rule of certain and specific content in order to yield uniformity at the expense of considerations of fairness in the particular case; or, as in this case, the standard can be more abstract and general to give the adjudicator flexibility in resolving the dispute at hand.

These features of the jury system for assessing punitive damages discourage uniform results, but nonuniformity cannot be equated with constitutional infirmity. As we have said in the capital sentencing context:

"It is not surprising that such collective judgments often are difficult to explain. But the inherent lack of predictability of jury decisions does not justify their condemnation. On the contrary, it is the jury's function to make the difficult and uniquely human judgments that defy codification and that `buil[d] discretion, equity, and flexibility into a legal system.' " McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 311 (1987) (quoting H. Kalven & H. Zeisel, The American Jury 498 (1966)).

This is not to say that every award of punitive damages by a jury will satisfy constitutional norms. A verdict returned by a biased or prejudiced jury no doubt violates due process, and the extreme amount of an award compared to the actual damage inflicted can be some evidence of bias or prejudice in an appropriate case. One must recognize the difficulty of making the showing required to prevail on this theory. In my view, however, it provides firmer guidance and rests on sounder jurisprudential foundations than does the approach espoused by the majority. While seeming to approve the common law method for assessing punitive damages, ante, at 14, the majority nevertheless undertakes a detailed examination of that method as applied in the case before us, ante, at 14-20. It is difficult to comprehend on what basis the majority believes the common-law method might violate due process in a particular case after it has approved that method as a general matter, and this tension in its analysis now must be resolved in some later case.

In my view, the principles mentioned above and the usual protections given by the laws of the particular State must suffice until judges or legislators authorized to do so initiate system-wide change. We do not have the authority, as do judges in some of the States, to alter the rules of the common law respecting the proper standard for awarding punitive damages and the respective roles of the jury and the court in making that determination. Were we sitting as state court judges, the size and recurring unpredictability of punitive damages awards might be a convincing argument to reconsider those rules or to urge a reexamination by the legislative authority. We are confined in this case, however, to interpreting the Constitution, and from this perspective I agree that we must reject the arguments advanced by petitioner.

For these reasons I concur in the judgment of the Court.