Tobacco Suits Stay in State Courts
The Supreme Court yesterday denied Big Tobacco’s bid to take smoking lawsuits out of state courts.
In a major blow to tobacco companies, the US Supreme Court yesterday denied tobacco giant Philip Morris’ s request to shift all smokers’ lawsuits to federal courts, which generally give greater leeway to corporations and smaller damage awards to those claiming harm from years of exposure to tobacco smoke.
Attorneys for Philip Morris argued that, because the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for regulating the tobacco industry, federal courts should have jurisdiction over the case. The company also argued that because the US government has allowed tobacco companies such as Philip Morris to assume responsibility for tests to determine tar and nicotine levels in cigarettes, the federal court should decide the case.
The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed, but the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision. In the opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the high court found no evidence that the federal government had delegated its legal authority allowing the tobacco companies to take over testing for tar and nicotine from the US government.
I have no real sense of the merits of Philip Morris’ argument and the fact that the opinion was unanimous would seem a pretty strong indication that they were on shaky legal ground.
What strikes me as odd, however, is that Big Tobacco ought to have the presumed right to have these cases heard in the federal courts on diversity grounds. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that, “The [federal government’s] judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity. . . between Citizens of different States.” Corporations have long been deemed “citizens” and have enjoyed the right to diversity status since John Marshall was Chief Justice. Theoretically, then, Philip Morris should be entitled to have disputes brought by citizens of states other than where it is incorporated heard in federal court.
Any legal scholars out there know why they aren’t?