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Southern Union Co. v. United States

ELR Citation: 42 ELR 20134
Nos. 11-94, (U.S., 06/21/2012)

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned an $18 million fine imposed against a pipeline operator for storing liquid mercury at one of its facilities without a permit in violation of RCRA. In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment's jury-trial guarantee requires that any fact that increases the maximum punishment authorized for a particular crime be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. RCRA violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $50,000 for each day of violation. Here, the trial court held that Apprendi applies to criminal fines, but concluded from the "content and context of the verdict all together" that the jury found a 762-day violation. It therefore set a maximum potential fine of $38.1 million, from which it imposed a fine of $6 million and a "community service obligation" of $12 million. On appeal, the First Circuit disagreed with the trial court that the jury necessarily found a violation of 762 days, but it affirmed the sentence because it held that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines. The Supreme Court held that the rule of Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines. Because the only violation the jury necessarily found was for one day, imposing any fine greater than the single-day penalty of $50,000 violates Apprendi. Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kennedy and Alito, JJ., joined.