WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday said a federal law limits how much money victims of child pornography can recover from people who viewed their images online, throwing out a nearly $3.4 million judgment in favor of a woman whose childhood rape has been widely seen on the Internet.
The justices said in a 5-4 ruling that courts can order people convicted of child pornography to pay restitution to their victims, but only to the extent that there is a strong tie between the victim’s losses and the convicts’ actions.
In this case, Doyle Randall Paroline was held liable by a federal appeals court for the entire amount of the woman’s losses, though his computer contained just two images of her.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court that federal judges should exercise discretion in awarding restitution. The case involved a woman known in court papers by the pseudonym “Amy.” Her losses have been pegged at nearly $3.4 million, based on the ongoing Internet trade and viewing of images of her being raped by her uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old.
The ruling steered a middle ground between the woman’s call for full restitution and Paroline’s claim that there was no relationship between his conduct and the woman’s losses, so that there should be no award of restitution.
Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy’s opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said the restitution law as written should mean that Amy gets nothing. In a separate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she would have upheld the full award.