WASHINGTON — What could legal battles over a fatal 1968 car crash and a rich Nevada inventor’s income taxes mean for the stability of Roe v. Wade?
A lot, potentially.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month issued an important opinion in a complicated legal case starring a Nevada inventor, in which the court’s conservative wing overruled long-standing precedent set in another case involving a Nevada driver killed in a car crash more than 50 years ago.
Some legal experts and abortion rights advocates fear that the ruling offers an ominous sign about the court’s willingness to reject prior precedent in other major cases, including perhaps the landmark 1973 opinion in Roe, which found that the women’s “right to privacy” under the U.S. Constitution includes the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Since that decision, the high court has used the precedent set by Roe to toss out state efforts to restrict women’s access to abortions. But the fate of the 1973 ruling has been increasingly in doubt since President Trump appointed conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the high court last year, tilting the ideological makeup of the bench.
Several states have recently passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws seen in decades, and some supporters are hoping they serve as a vehicle for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.
In the case decided this month, Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, the court split 5-4 along ideological lines, with the conservative majority ruling that states are immune from private lawsuits brought in courts of other states. The decision, penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, overruled a 1979 opinion in another case — Nevada v. Hall — that allowed for exceptions.
In the dissent written by the court’s liberal wing, the justices warned of potentially broad ramifications of toppling court precedent.
“Each time the Court overrules a case, the Court produces increased uncertainty. To overrule a sound decision like Hall is to encourage litigants to seek to overrule other cases; it is to make it more difficult for lawyers to refrain from challenging settled law; and it is to cause the public to become increasingly uncertain about which cases the Court will overrule and which cases are here to stay,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the dissent. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Breyer specifically pointed to the 1992 opinion in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the court relied on the precedent set by Roe to strike down abortion restrictions.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D), the state’s former attorney general, is among those concerned about the ruling in the Hyatt case.
She “finds the decision of particular concern in demonstrating the Supreme Court’s potential willingness to overturn existing precedent, particularly as it pertains to cases like Roe v. Wade,” said her spokesman Ryan King.
“As the Senate under [Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell continues on its path of confirming partisan judges to lifetime appointments on the bench, [Cortez Masto] remains laser focused on protecting the equal rights of Nevada women to make their own health choices, and protect communities threatened by this Administration’s terrible record on issues from LGBTQ rights, to voting and civil rights,” King added. Last week, Cortez Masto joined Senate Democrats in backing a resolution supporting women’s rights to access abortions.
The Nevadans in the court fights
The legal battles now causing panic among some abortion rights advocates can be traced back to a 1968 car crash.
An employee of the University of Nevada Reno was driving in California on official business when he collided with another vehicle on a highway. The Nevada driver, who was deemed to be at fault in the accident, was killed. California residents in the other vehicle suffered severe injuries, and they sued Nevada in a California court for damages.
Nevada argued that the U.S. Constitution gives states immunity from being sued by private parties in other state’s courts. The dispute worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1979 rejected Nevada’s argument for absolute immunity in another state’s courts.
Fast forward in the legal drama to 1991.
That’s the year Gilbert Hyatt, a wealthy microchip inventor and a longtime California resident told that state he had moved to the Silver State. Nevada is one of seven states with no income tax, making it a popular destination for wealthy individuals and retirees.
But California’s Franchise Tax Board — the agency that collects personal income tax — disputed Hyatt’s claim that he had moved to Nevada in October 1991, insisting that he moved in 1992 and owed California more than $10 million in income tax, interest and penalties.
Hyatt then sued the Franchise Tax Board of California in a Nevada court, arguing that during the audit, agents had gone through his private mail and rifled through his trash. His attorneys said a California tax auditor claimed she was going to “get that Jew bastard.”
Following an epic legal fight, a Nevada jury awarded Hyatt nearly $500 million in damages, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Nevada Supreme Court later reduced the damages to $1 million. But California appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the state couldn’t be sued in another state’s courts.
Hyatt’s attorneys argued that the Nevada v. Hall ruling from 1979 “clearly established that a state does not have sovereign immunity when sued in the courts of another state.”
But the Supreme Court this month, led by Justice Thomas, disagreed, arguing that the Constitution does indeed give states immunity from private lawsuits. Stare decisis, the legal practice of following historical cases when ruling on similar cases, “does not compel continued adherence to this erroneous precedent,” Thomas wrote.
“We therefore overrule Hall and hold that States retain their sovereign immunity from private suits brought in the courts of other States.”
That’s worrisome to Breyer and the court’s liberal justices. The Hyatt decision “can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next,” Breyer wrote.