2012 in Review: The top legal stories, part 4

December 26, 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
Part 2
Part 3

Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs

Miller and Jackson, ruled on jointly by the Supreme Court on June 25, 2012, are major landmark rulings in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

HandcuffsThey specifically hold that a mandatory life imprisonment without parole for defendants under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

Previously, as discussed in more detail in this post, the Court had only ruled that imposing the death sentence on individuals under 18 years of age at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional (in 2005’s Roper v. Simmons).

Just seven years later, Kennedy again tipped the scales in favor of the juvenile defendants, helping them to eke out a 5-4 victory before the Supreme Court.

Aside from the implications for constitutional law jurisprudence, the ruling is significant because it is so defendant-friendly in an era of a Court particularly hostile to such interests.

Success of same-sex marriage at the polls

The 2012 elections saw the states of Maine, Maryland, and Washington pass ballot initiatives to legalize same-sex marriage.  These three states became the first in U.S. history to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote.

Remarkably, it was only eight years ago that state after state began passing constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (despite the fact that it was already illegal under respective state laws).  In fact, as recently as 2008, California passed such a ballot initiative (Prop 8, currently under review by the Supreme Court) after same-sex marriage became legal through a state supreme court ruling in May of that year.

Best of The National Law Journal reader pollThese 2012 victories are being touted by opponents of same-sex marriage as evidence that homosexuals are no longer suffering from the “historic discrimination” and “lack of political power” that would necessitate the use of intermediate scrutiny for laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Although I can’t really understand the logic behind the argument, it doesn’t really matter what I think; the Supreme Court is going to be making the decision.

And whether this argument, prompted by the 2012 electoral victories of same-sex marriage advocates, carries any weight with the Court’s decisions in U.S. v. Windsor or Hollingsworth v. Perry remains to be seen.

Either way, these successes are historic in and of themselves.

Shelby County v. Holder

Many conservatives on the Supreme Court have been itching to gut Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for decades.  With SCOTUS agreeing to review Shelby County v. Holder, it looks like they may soon get their wish.

You can read all about Section 5 in any of these posts, but it essentially requires states and counties with a historic penchant for voter disenfranchisement based on race to obtain federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws.  It still regularly operates today to block voter ID laws and redistricting plans from going into effect.

However, many pro-states’ rights conservatives on the Court believe that conditions have improved so much in these “covered jurisdictions” that the federal intrusion represented by Section 5 is no longer justifiable.

Whether this is actually the case – that voter suppression efforts based on race no longer occur at a consequential rate – is irrelevant.  It only matters if five Justices believe that such is the case.

I predicted the demise of Section 5, and 2013 will tell whether I am correct in that prediction.

Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories

In what was arguably the most significant intellectual property ruling in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Mayo v. Prometheus on March 20, 2012.  The Court unanimously held that patents cannot protect the correlations between laws of nature.

As applied in Mayo, Prometheus had patented the correlation between the blood test results and thiopurine drug effectiveness.  The Court found that this correlation fell into the “laws of nature” category, and was thus not patentable (I went into much greater detail of the case here).

The ruling isn’t merely significant because of the number of patents that it invalidated, but because of it being a rare occasion that the Supreme Court actually rules against I.P. holders.

The Sandy Hook massacre

Almost 100 people died in the United States in mass shootings in 2012, making this year the deadliest when it comes to mass shootings.

However, despite the nation suffering through mass shooting after appalling mass shooting, no action was taken on a national scale to crack down on public access to firearms, largely because enormous resistance from gun rights advocates made a gun control stance a politically incorrect one.

That all seemed to change after horrific events on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  A heavily armed gunman, Adam Lanza, killed 26 people, including 20 children from 5 to 10 years old.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre (the guns used by Lanza were all legally purchased), Washington seems poised to actually pass a new, significant gun control law.  Considering the clout held by the National Rifle Association, this is no small feat.

Whether such a law actually passes and what shape such a law would take remains to be seen.  However, the tragedy at Sandy Hook will always be remembered as the impetus for such a law.