2012 in Review: The top legal stories, part 2

December 12, 2012

2012 in review(Editor’s note: Throughout December, we’ll be looking at the top 20 legal events of 2012, as chosen by the Westlaw Insider editorial staff.)

Previous entries:

Part 1

The Supreme Court grants certiorari to two same-sex marriage cases

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to review two cases on same-sex marriage rights.

We’ve discussed this some already, and we’ll be looking at it quite a bit more in the coming months (you can keep up with our coverage on the topic here).

The reason for our heavy coverage of these cases is the same reason why this legal event made 2012’s top 20: the Supreme Court’s decisions on these cases promise to be landmark rulings that will impact laws on same-sex marriage across the country.

The two cases deal with two different laws: Hollingsworth v. Perry is the challenge to California’s Prop 8, and U.S. v. Windsor is the challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Thus, both state and federal laws on the issue are implicated by these cases.

How SCOTUS decides these cases obviously remains to be seen, but since this is the first time that the nation’s high court has chosen to review the issue of same-sex marriage, it’s certain that these cases will be remembered for years to come.

Fisher v. University of Texas

The use of race factors in school admissions has been contentious since the practice began almost a half-century ago.

Until now, the Supreme Court has always narrowly upheld the system, most recently in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger.

With the current ideological makeup of the Court as it is, the survival of race-based school admissions factors seems far less likely (which seems to be what the Fisher plaintiffs’ conservative financial backers were waiting for).

Supreme Court B&W

Fisher v. University of Texas, which is currently awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court, will very probably be the end of these practices (here’s my detailed prediction on the case’s outcome).

Fisher also represents another circumstance of the conservative divide that I spoke of with regard to Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting in last year’s top 20.

The vast majority of businesses (large and small) are supporting University of Texas’ policies (citing their “vital interest” in hiring from a diverse applicant pool), while many conservatives that identify more with the ethno-nationalist bloc are supporting Fisher.

Whether the conservatives on the Court are at all swayed by the legion of business and military amici filed on behalf of the University of Texas remains to be seen, but it still seems more likely that Fisher will be the end of the use of race in school admissions policies.

FCC v. Fox

Of course, I could very well be wrong about Fisher since I was wrong in my prediction on FCC v. Fox earlier this year.

Fox was a challenge brought by the Fox and ABC television stations over the power of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine what broadcast material was “indecent.”

I predicted that the Court would uphold 1978’s FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, which upheld the FCC’s ability to make that determination.

Although I wasn’t mistaken as to that point, I was mistaken as to whether the Supreme Court would uphold or reverse the lower court’s ruling, which was that the FCC’s decency standards are void for vagueness.

It turns out that the Court ruled 8-0 (Kagan recused herself) that the FCC’s standards were too vague, but only because earlier versions of the standards didn’t cover the “fleeting expletives” that were at issue in the case.

However, the case is still significant because it represents one of the exceedingly rare occasions that the FCC loses in court on its decency regulatory powers.

Apple’s big win over Samsung

Apple and Samsung have been embroiled in legal battles across the globe over Apple’s patents related to the iPhone and iPad.

Apple wins jury verdict

The U.S. court battle resulted in Apple’s favor: on August 24, 2012, a jury awarded to Apple a staggering amount – over $1 billion – against Samsung, who the jury had found to infringe upon Apple’s patents and trade dress.

Samsung has since filed an appeal, claiming jury misconduct, but unless and until the verdict is overturned, the makers of phones and tablets that use the Android OS will have to pay licensing fees to Apple.

Although we don’t now know whether this verdict stands or how any future legal conflicts play out between these two tech giants, we can be certain that the future of the smartphone and tablet markets will be heavily impacted.

The law school tumult continues

This one made 2011’s top 20 list, too, primarily because 2011 was the year that legal action was taken by law graduates against their respective alma maters.

For those who haven’t been following this story, the abysmally low employment rate for new attorneys coupled with the exorbitant increases in law school tuition over the past decade or two has left a lot of law students and recent law school graduates very upset with their law schools, particularly because of allegedly false or exaggerated graduate employment rates.

The past few years have seen a significant drop in law school admissions, which some economists might label a “market correction.”

In any case, the issue hasn’t died down in 2012, and, from the looks of things, 2013 likely won’t be the end of it either.

Perhaps the importance of this issue is obvious, but it’s still worth stating: the legal education industry is in turmoil, and however it emerges from this period of change will have a huge impact on the future of the legal profession itself.