2011 in review: The top 20 legal stories, part 2

December 14, 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.)

Click here for part 1.

Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes

This is the second class-action Supreme Court ruling in our top 20 (see the last post for the first), and it’s notable for several reasons.

First, it was the largest class action in U.S. history (1.6 million women as plaintiffs claiming sexual discrimination against Wal-Mart), and it’s likely to stay that way.

This is because the June 2011 decision raised the bar on the “commonality requirement” for class certification such that similarly-sized classes of plaintiffs would have markedly more difficulty meeting the requirement (some would argue it’s now impossible for particularly large classes).

If you’re interested in finding out more about the facts and law behind the ruling, there’s been plenty of commentary on it.

Suffice it to say, though, that the ruling is one of the most significant of 2011, and is another milestone in class-action law that the year has given to us.

New York’s Marriage Equality Act

Signed into law on June 24, and taking effect one month later on July 24, the Marriage Equality Act legalized same-sex marriage in the state of New York, making New York the sixth state to do so (not including California) and the most populous.

The Act is significant for its bipartisan support, and for the lawsuit that immediately followed its taking effect.

The legal challenge claims that New York’s Open Meetings Law was violated, and that the law should be invalidated.

The lawsuit has already advanced further than I thought it would, but that isn’t to say that it will be successful (successfully challenging a law based on an open meetings law is quite difficult).

Whichever way the lawsuit goes, the Marriage Equality Act is one in a series of events that made 2011 a big year for the issue of same-sex marriage.

America Invents Act

Although news about this law fell under the radar to most whom weren’t connected to IP happenings, the America Invents Act is the most significant shift in U.S. patent law since 1952’s U.S. Patent Act.

The Act, passed through Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law on September 16, shifts U.S. patent law from a “first-to-invent” system to a “first-to-file” system.

The shift is exactly what it sounds like, and up to this point, the U.S. was unique in the world for retaining a “first-to-invent” system.

There are plenty of tech media outlets that have covered this topic, and this piece provides some great insight into how it will change patent litigation.

Many, such as Texas Congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, declare the Act unconstitutional under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8.

Regardless of whether any legal challenges to the Act emerge, it still marks 2011 as a year that significantly transformed the U.S. patent system.

Snyder v. Phelps

On March 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s free speech protections insulated Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church from tort liability for their picketing military funerals with incendiary banners and signs.

This ruling was predominantly in line with existing case law, but definitely wasn’t with public opinion, which is what makes it stand out.

Moreover, the case is notable for Alito’s sole dissent in which he advocates that Westboro’s speech shouldn’t be protected because it amounts only to a “verbal assault.”

States take immigration into their own hands

40 different states passed new immigration laws during the first half of 2011, according to a Thomson Reuters report.

Many of them, specifically laws that criminalized the mere presence of being in the country illegally, were met with constitutional challenges immediately after passage.

With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the challenge to Arizona’s laws, we may get some guidance on the issue within the next several months.

Given how the Court ruled in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, and that Justice Kagan has recused herself, it’s very possible that the law will be left standing.

That could mean 2012 will be an even bigger year for immigration laws.

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!