In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said federal law does not require a defendant guilty of possessing child pornography to pay the entire amount of a multimillion-dollar restitution award owed to a child victim whose abuse is depicted in images widely distributed on the Internet.
Instead, the court said that a person convicted of downloading and possessing photos of child pornography can be required to pay restitution only in proportion to the defendant’s contribution to injuries suffered by the child victim.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the federal statute permits judges to apportion the restitution payment based on an assessment of the proportion of harm caused by each possessor of the images.
The justice acknowledged the difficulty of the undertaking.
“This cannot be a precise mathematical inquiry and involves the use of discretion and sound judgment,” he said in a decision joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan.