In the case before the court, an appeals court had said Doyle Randall Paroline was liable for all of the $ 3.4 million in damages a young woman identified in court documents as “Amy Unknown” was found to be owed for lost income and psychological damage.
All nine justices indicated that the law Congress passed to require restitution to victims of child pornography was flawed, and several called for a rewrite that would provide more precision and guidance.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that his approach “is not without difficulties.”
“But courts can only do their best to apply the statute as written in a workable manner, faithful to the competing principles at stake: that victims should be compensated and that defendants should be held to account for the impact of their conduct on those victims, but also that defendants should be made liable for the consequences and gravity of their own conduct, not the conduct of others,” he wrote.
Kennedy said there were three options: give Amy nothing, because it is impossible to decide how Paroline’s possession of two images affected her; make Paroline liable for all of her damages, even though it is clear that his actions alone did not cause all of her problems; or take the middle ground.
Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said he “regretfully” dissented, and said a proper reading of the law would mean Paroline should pay nothing.
“The statute as written allows no recovery; we ought to say so, and give Congress a chance to fix it,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissented, but in the opposite direction. She said the law requires each individual convicted of possessing Amy’s images be held liable for the “full amount of the victim’s losses.”
Kennedy said in deciding “the relative causal significance of the defendant’s conduct” in causing the victim’s losses, district courts should consider several factors. Among them, the number of other defendants who have paid restitution, the number of future offenders likely to be caught and whether the defendant reproduced or distributed images of the victim.
Amy was raped by an uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old, and the events were recorded. When she was 17, she learned that the images were widely available online; her attorney Paul G. Cassell estimates more than 70,000 people have seen them.
Courts have estimated damages to her at nearly $ 3.5 million, but they have been collected in a piecemeal manner.
Cassell said it has taken 41/ 2 years to collect $ 1.75 million, from 182 defendants ($ 1.2 million came from one man).
In a statement posted on The Volokh Conspiracy blog, which is hosted by the Washington Post, Cassell said he was disappointed by the ruling. He is a regular contributor to the blog.
“As Amy has recognized, the Supreme Court’s split-the-difference ruling promises her that she will receive full restitution ‘someday,’ ” Cassell wrote. “ I just wonder how far in the future that someday will be.”
And he quoted Amy as well: “The Supreme Court said we should keep going back to the district courts over and over again but that’s what I have been doing for almost six years now,” she said in a statement. “It’s crazy that people keep committing this crime year after year and now victims like me have to keep reliving it year after year.”
The case is Paroline v. United States.