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Judge: punitive-damage cap unconstitutional

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A Marion County judge has refused to reduce damages in a priest sex-abuse case, saying the punitive damage caps put in place more than a decade ago are unconstitutional.

Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer issued a 20-page ruling Friday in John Doe v. Father Jonathan Lovill Stewart, No. 49D10-0402-CT-0443. The decision came in the case of a Greene County man, who claimed that as a 10-year-old boy the Catholic priest molested him between 1993 and 1997. A jury in April 2008 awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages, the latter that would have been reduced to $50,000.

State statute amended in 1995 says that punitive damages can't be more than three times the compensatory award or $50,000, whichever is greater.

The priest's attorney had asked the court to reduce the punitive damages to that $50,000 mark, but Doe argued that the cap is unconstitutional and that it doesn't apply to his case because the molestation acts started in 1993 before the statute was in effect.

Judge Dreyer determined the statute isn't retroactive, but more significantly that it violates the Indiana Constitution with respect to separation of powers and right to trial by jury - the legislative move to limit the jury's verdict goes against a person's constitutional right to trial by jury, he wrote.

"The Indiana Constitution protects each branch of government from interference with each other, and further guarantees Indiana citizens will have their civil cases decided by a jury," he wrote. "The Statute's two provisions ... interpose the will of the General Assembly to supersede otherwise valid verdicts. Accordingly, it contradicts the Indiana Constitution and should not interfere with Doe's punitive damage award."

While other states' constitutional language and setups may allow limits on punitive damages, the judge said Indiana's does not. This statute "materially burdens" the state's core values and is an inadequate substitute for what the framers envisioned in the state constitution.

"Our scrupulous guard against encroachment only allows one finding: the Statute impermissibly alienates Indiana's guarantee to trial by jury, and its nullification is rational and necessary," Judge Dreyer wrote.

More coverage on this case and legal issue will be in the March 18-31, 2009, issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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