Newspaper column: Can a Nevada law pass constitutional muster?

Our federal and state constitutions are meant to lay the ground rules for what our governments can and cannot do, spelling out the rights of the individual to be free from the dictates for well-meaning but overweening lawmakers.

A recent obscure and little-noted Supreme Court case out of Minnesota tore the heart out of one of those rights by flippantly dismissing the significance of one of those rights and claiming the outcome is what is best for the lackadaisical peons.

What other rights might be in jeopardy?

The case was a challenge to a Minnesota law that requires a divorced spouse to be automatically dropped as a life insurance beneficiary — a law that treads on the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause, which states, “No State shall … pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts …” A life insurance policy is most assuredly a contract.

From SCOTUS blog

Nevada has a similar law, NRS 111.781, passed in 2011, that states all listed beneficiaries on life insurance policies are automatically revoked once a divorce is finalized.

Nevada’s state Constitution also states, “No bill of attainder, ex-post-facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts shall ever be passed.” Doesn’t abrogation constitute impairment?

The underpinning of such laws is that lawmakers believe the average mope is too lazy or too ignorant to initiate a change in life insurance beneficiaries following a divorce.

The case of Sveen v. Melin upheld the Minnesota version of this law by a vote of 8-1 with only Justice Neil Gorsuch dissenting.

In 1998 Mark Sveen purchased a life insurance policy naming his wife Kaye Melin as beneficiary. In 2002 Minnesota passed the law in question. Sveen and Melin later divorced and Sveen died. Melin and Sveen’s children from a previous marriage sought the insurance money.

The court held: “The retroactive application of Minnesota’s statute does not violate the Contracts Clause.” No one even raised the question of whether it was ex post facto.

Even Justice Gorsuch throws the Contracts Clause under one wheel of the bus, writing, “Everyone agrees that the law is valid when applied prospectively to policies purchased after the statute’s enactment. But Minnesota wants to apply its law retroactively to policies purchased before the statute’s adoption. The Court of Appeals held that this violated the Contracts Clause, which guarantees people the ‘right to “rely on the law … as it existed when the[ir] contracts were made.”’ …That judgment seems to me exactly right.”

A prospective contract impairment is OK, but not a retroactive one?

“Of course, the framers knew how to impose more nuanced limits on state power,” Gorsuch writes later. “The very section of the Constitution where the Contracts Clause is found permits states to take otherwise unconstitutional action when ‘absolutely necessary,’ if ‘actually invaded,’ or ‘wit[h] the Consent of Congress.’…  But in the Contracts Clause the framers were absolute. They took the view that treating existing contracts as ‘inviolable’ would benefit society by ensuring that all persons could count on the ability to enforce promises lawfully made to them — even if they or their agreements later prove unpopular with some passing majority.”

But Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, rationalizied, “True enough that in revoking a beneficiary designation, the law makes a significant change. As Melin says, the ‘whole point’ of buying life insurance is to provide the proceeds to the named beneficiary. … But … the statute is designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent — and so to support, rather than impair, the contractual scheme.”

Lawmakers and justices are mind readers who can tell what people really want to do rather than what they actually do under signed contracts.

Gorsuch concluded, “The judicial power to declare a law unconstitutional should never be lightly invoked. But the law before us cannot survive an encounter with even the breeziest of Contracts Clause tests. It substantially impairs life insurance contracts by retroactively revising their key term. No one can offer any reasonable justification for this impairment in light of readily available alternatives. Acknowledging this much doesn’t even require us to hold the statute invalid in all applications, only that it cannot be applied to contracts formed before its enactment.”

Since Nevada’s law and Nevada’s Constitution appear to be in conflict, there is a chance this controversy could arise here and be settled at the state level. There are principles at stake, as well as money.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Court case is about free speech, not abortion

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case — NIFLA v. Becerra — that could answer the question of whether forcing speech on certain professionals is a violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

NIFLA is the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which gives legal advice to pro-life pregnancy centers, and Becerra is Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California.

At issue is a California law, the Reproductive FACT Act, that requires “crisis pregnancy centers” to post notices informing pregnant women about state-subsidized free or low-cost abortions.

The law also requires pro-life, religious-oriented unlicensed centers to place extensive disclaimers in large fonts and in as many as 13 languages in their ads and on billboards telling people about abortion services, significantly increasing their cost to advertise. The law exempts abortion providers, hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the law.

The case could reverberate in this year’s Nevada gubernatorial election, because Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for the Republican nomination to be governor, signed onto to an amicus brief in the case with 21 other states, challenging the law as an unconstitutional burden on free speech.

According to the donation-funded news website The Nevada Independent, the two leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani, have sharply criticized Laxalt for taking sides in the lawsuit, calling him “anti-choice.” Sisolak and Giunchigliani are both donors to the website.

The amicus brief argues the California law is not “an informed consent” law, which the courts have upheld.

“Informed consent is required specifically so that the patient can assess the risks and consequences of a procedure that a doctor is seeking to perform. …” the brief in question argues. “In contrast, a State’s desire to compel clinics to disseminate information about the availability of state funding for procedures those clinics do not perform has nothing to do with allowing a patient to assess the risks and consequences of a medical procedure about to be performed.”

The targeted clinics provide pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, referrals and consultations, which involve little, if any, risk.

The brief concludes, “If there is evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of any of the medical clinics, California may unquestionably enforce those standards through the power of its regulatory authority, like any other State. But enforcing standards does not necessitate a blanket requirement compelling medical clinics to advertise state- subsidized services they do not provide.”

During oral arguments this past week, the questions asked by both liberal and conservative justices indicated they thought the law an overreach.

“If — if it’s about just ensuring that everyone has full information about their options, why should the state free-ride on a limited number of clinics to provide that information?” asked the court’s newest conservative member, Neil Gorsuch. He later added, “Well, but if you’re trying to educate a class of — of persons about their rights, it’s — it’s pretty unusual to force a private speaker to do that for you under the First Amendment.”

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked about California’s effort to create a new category of speech called professional speech, which would have lesser First Amendment protection than other speech.

“I mean, this case is very important in itself, but adopting this new category of speech would have far-reaching consequences. …” Alito said from the bench. “But just to take a couple of examples: Journalists are professionals. So would they be subject to this standard? How about economists? How about climate scientists? How about a fortune teller? The Fourth Circuit said that a fortune teller is a — is a professional. How about somebody who writes an advice column for parents? I mean, wouldn’t we be getting into very dangerous territory if we do this?”

Justice Elena Kagan, one the markedly liberal justices, questioned the way the law was “gerrymandered” to target a select group for the content of their speech.

“Because if it has been gerrymandered, that’s a serious issue,” she stated. “In other words, if, you know, it’s like, look, we have these general disclosure requirements, but we don’t really want to apply them generally, we just want to apply them to some speakers whose speech we don’t much like.”

The question to be resolved in California is about free speech, not abortion.

Laxalt did join a 25-state amicus brief a year ago defending a Texas law banning “dismemberment” abortions, in which fetuses are torn apart in the womb.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Both sides of the national abortion argument, plus free-speech rights, are at the center of Supreme Court case NIFLA v. Becerra. (AP pix).