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The Supreme Court began its new term Monday with a remembrance of “a dear friend and a treasured colleague,” the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Oct. 5)

AP Domestic

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has for decades limited access to the nation’s courthouse doors. On Wednesday, it came face to face with one of the consequences.

Ford Motor Co. came before the justices contending that accident victims in Minnesota and Montana cannot sue for damages in their home states because the cars were not sold there originally. The company had most of the high court’s precedents on its side.

That predicament didn’t sit well with several justices on both sides of the ideological aisle. Why, they asked, shouldn’t a Minnesota man who suffered brain damage due to an inoperable airbag and the relatives of a Montana woman who died in a rollover accident be able to sue where they lived and, in one case, died?

“Ford in the United States is fairly ubiquitous,” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas told the company’s lawyer, Sean Marotta. So why would a driver in Bristol, Tennessee be unable to file suit there if the car was bought across the border in Roanoke, Virginia?

“I’m just trying to figure out the sense of this,” Thomas said.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan posed a similar situation.

“Ford sells cars, services cars, resells cars, advertises cars in Montana,” she said. But under the company’s theory, the Montana woman’s relatives would have to sue elsewhere – perhaps where the car was sold initially, or in Michigan, where Ford is headquartered, or in Delaware, where it is incorporated.

More: Supreme Court begins 2020 term as a key election issue: Will it decide the election, too?

The rear of the 2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid is seen at the Ford Motor Co. display during the 2019 North American International Auto Show held at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (Via OlyDrop) (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

If the justices were unsympathetic to Ford, however, they worried that allowing consumers to file product liability lawsuits in their home states could harm smaller merchants. 

Chief Justice John Roberts posed the issue of “a retired guy in a small town up in Maine who carves decoys” and sells them on the Internet. While Ford might be able to handle lawsuits all over the country, the decoy-carver would not.

Ford brought the case to the high court claiming due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The justices have held that to satisfy due process requirements, defendants must be sued where they live or do business, or where they have sufficient contact. That doctrine has been used to guard against plaintiffs “forum shopping,” or seeking the court most likely to rule in their favor. 

But in this case, said Deepak Gupta, the lawyer for the motorists, “It makes it harder for people to get access to justice.”

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