WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that people who peddle in child pornography must help pay for their victims' pain and suffering – within reason.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices struck a compromise in the case of "Amy," whose images — taken by her uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old — have become some of the most popular on the Internet for traffickers in child pornography.
Rather than holding one man liable for up to $3.4 million in restitution, as the woman's lawyers urged, the court said trial judges should determine the fair amount. Three justices dissented and said the defendant can't be liable at all; a fourth said he should be liable for the full amount.
In the compromise ruling, the ultimate penalty for each purveyor of porn "would not be severe, but it would not be token," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in announcing the decision from the bench.
The case stems from Congress' passage of the Sexual Exploitation and Other Abuse of Children Act, which established penalties and restitution for sexual assault, domestic violence and child pornography. The law called for full restitution — but it did not specify who should pay what.
Amy, whose real name is not used in court papers, was raped and filmed at ages 8 and 9. It wasn't until she was 17 that she learned the sex acts had gone viral on the Internet. As a result, her lawyers argued, she could not finish college, has had trouble holding a job and will require weekly psychotherapy for the rest of her life.
Those problems carry what courts have estimated is a $3.4 million price tag for psychotherapy, lost wages and other costs. Since her images were discovered, federal authorities have identified more than 3,200 cases in which they were downloaded. They have won court orders for restitution totaling more than $1.7 million in 182 cases.
The case before the court involved Doyle Randall Paroline, who possessed just two images and was sentenced in 2009 to two years in prison. Lawyers for the victim argued that under the law Congress passed in 1994, every trafficker should be held liable for the maximum amount he can pay until the full $3.4 million has been paid. Government lawyers argued for a lesser "fair share" approach.
During oral arguments in January, the justices agreed that Amy deserved the money, but they didn't agree that Paroline should be asked to pay it all. "Some limiting principle has to come into play," Justice Stephen Breyer said.
In the end, Kennedy and Breyer were joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan in devising what Kennedy called a "common sense" approach.
"Restitution is therefore proper ... only to the extent the defendant's offense proximately caused a victim's losses," Kennedy said in a 26-page opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said Paroline should pay nothing because it's impossible to approximate his share of the crime.
"The statute as written allows no recovery," Roberts said. "We ought to say so, and give Congress a chance to fix it."
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented for the opposite reason, saying that Amy should be able to collect the full amount from any defendant.
Picking up where she left off on Tuesday in a verbal tiff with Roberts over affirmative action, Sotomayor said his dissenting opinion "would result in no restitution in cases like this for the perverse reason that a child has been victimized by too many."