WASHINGTON (CN) — A dollar in damages, sought as symbolic relief by two students who say a Georgia college trampled their religious speech rights, is enough to keep the case alive, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday.
“Nominal damages are not a consolation prize for the plaintiff who pleads, but fails to prove, compensatory damages,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “They are instead the damages awarded by default until the plaintiff establishes entitlement to some other form of damages, such as compensatory or statutory damages.”
In the case here, evangelical Christian students Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford sought such damages after saying Georgia Gwinnett College prevented them from speaking about their religion on campus.
While Uzuegbunam was prevented, twice, by campus officials from speaking in squares reserved for free expression, Bradford says the university’s reaction to his classmate’s attempts discouraged him from similar expression.
Though the college reserved just 0.0015% of its campus as so-called free-speech zones at the time, it changed its policy 10 weeks after Uzuegbunam and Bradford went to court.
The classmates listed their damages as one dollar — relief that a federal judge deemed inadequate to sustain litigation.
The 11th Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case, leading to high court oral arguments where Justice Elena Kagan noted that a dollar in nominal damages was enough to compensate Taylor Swift in the pop star's groping case against a Denver DJ.
Kagan joined the majority Monday in slamming the “flawed premise” that nominal damages were purely symbolic.
“Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, we conclude that a request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element of standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of legal right,” Thomas wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent, however, that redress must satisfy and alleviate the plaintiff’s injury — either by compensation from past loss or by preventing future harm — in order to satisfy Article III standing.
Where the damaged party has alleged his rights were violated, Roberts wrote, nominal damages do serve either of these functions.
“They are not intended to approximate the value of tangible or intangible harms, or the deterrent effect required to prevent further misconduct,” Roberts wrote. “And they are not calculated with reference to either of these purposes.”
Uzuegbunam’s attorney Kristen Waggoner at Alliance Defending Freedom meanwhile cheered the court's reversal.
“When public officials violate constitutional rights, it causes serious harm to the victims,” Waggoner said in a statement Monday. “Groups representing diverse ideological viewpoints supported our clients because the threat to our constitutionally protected freedoms doesn’t stop with free speech rights or a college campus. Officials within our public institutions shouldn’t get a free pass for violating constitutional rights on campus or anywhere else.”
But for Roberts, the decision “risks a major expansion of the judicial role.”
“Until now, we have said that federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes,” the chief justice wrote. “Going forward, the Judiciary will be required to perform this function whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.”
Trying to head off these concerns in the majority opinion, meanwhile, Thomas emphasized that a request only of nominal damages will not “guarantee entry to court.”
Here, Thomas wrote, “it is undisputed that Uzuebunam experienced a complete violation of his connotational rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him.”
“Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ nominal damages can redress Uzuebunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms,” the ruling concludes.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurred but wrote separately that he agrees with Roberts that the acceptance of nominal damages should shield courts from ruling on the merits of specific issues.
“I write separately simply to note that I agree with the chief justice and the solicitor general that a defendant should be able to accept the entry of a judgment for nominal damages against it and thereby end the litigation without a resolution of the merits,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Kristen Waggoner, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney who argued on behalf of Uzuegbunam, did not return a request for comment Monday. Representatives at the Georgia Attorney General’s Office also did not return a request for comment.
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