2011 in review: The top 20 legal stories, part 1

December 7, 2011

Top 20 of 2011(Editor’s note: Throughout December, the last month of the year, we’ll be looking at the top 20 legal events of 2011, as chosen by the Westlaw Insider editorial staff.)

Voter ID Laws Take Off

Although voter ID laws – regulations that require some form of identification to vote – have been gaining momentum over the past decade, 2011 was a particularly notable year.

In 2011, voter ID laws were either passed or tightened in seven states, the highest in any one year.

A study released by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice  estimated that five million Americans could be affected by these changes for the 2012 election – a number, the Center points out, that is larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.

While some, such as the Heritage Foundation, dispute the accuracy of the study, the fact remains that these 2011 laws could very well impact the 2012 election and beyond.

AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

This Supreme Court decision was hailed by class-action defendants and condemned by consumer rights advocates.

The April 2011 decision ruled in a textbook 5-4 conservative-liberal split that California’s law – indeed the laws of all states – that bar contracts from forbidding class action lawsuits are preempted by federal law (i.e. invalidated).

This ruling was a significant victory for large corporations, which are often the target of class action lawsuits, since it allows arbitration clauses (which are found in a majority of consumer contracts) to cut off routes to class action lawsuits.

This ruling will be remembered as a landmark case in both the consumer and class action legal fields.

The Casey Anthony Verdict

This one is only a legal event in the sense that a jury verdict was rendered.

Yes, it has prompted several states to propose laws that would criminalize a parent’s failure to report a missing child, but the event did nothing to change legal trends in any lasting way.

Why include it, then?  Because “Casey Anthony” was one of the most-searched terms on the Internet in 2011, and this list wouldn’t be complete without it.

Banks Introduce New Debit Card Fees

Although this event isn’t by itself a legal one, it was a law that spurred banks to take this action to begin with.

Namely, the Dodd-Frank Act’s Durbin Amendment.

The Amendment basically capped “swipe fees” that banks charge merchants for debit card transactions (this post has more on it).

Because of the massive public backlash against it, the banks backpedaled and scrapped the plans altogether.

What’s notable about the entire event is that the first major effort by banks to recoup lost profits caused by regulatory shifts failed spectacularly.

That isn’t to say that banks will stop trying, but rather that they’ve certainly learned a valuable lesson from this and will perhaps take a different approach in the future.

The Revolt of the Law Students

And recent graduates, too.

August 2011 saw law school graduates suing their alma maters over “fraudulent” employment data, something “scambloggers” (recent law grads writing about deceptive law school practices) had been talking about for several years prior.

Unfortunately for law schools, this trend only seems to be escalating.

Perhaps even worse for the American Bar Association, there’s a very real possibility that Congress may decide to wrest away the ABA’s regulatory control of law schools – an unprecedented move.

While 2011 probably won’t tell how this story ends, it certainly played a large part in the story’s beginnings.

Click here for part 2.

Click here for part 3.

Click here for part 4.

What do you think are major legal events of 2011?  How would your list look?  Comment below to let us know!