2014 in Review: The top legal events, part 3

December 24, 2014

Top 20 of 2014(Editor’s note: Throughout December, we’ll be looking at the top 20 legal events of 2014, as chosen by the Legal Solutions editorial staff.)

Rosemond v. United States

Rosemond v. U.S. is one of those Supreme Court cases that goes largely unnoticed by the general population, but is nonetheless an important ruling in the area of law that it affects.

In Rosemond’s case, that area is criminal law, and the ruling is significant because it is the first aiding and abetting decision by the Court since 1980’s Standefer v. U.S.

Rosemond was decided 7-2 (Justices Alito and Thomas dissenting), with the majority resolving the question of whether the offense of aiding and abetting in the use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime requires proof of the defendant’s “intentional facilitation or encouragement of the use of the firearm,” or “if simple knowledge that the principal used a firearm during a drug trafficking crime in which the defendant also participated is sufficient.”

The majority resolved the question in favor of the former, holding that a defendant must have foreknowledge of the use of the firearm by the accomplice so that he may have the opportunity to quit the crime.

Again, though, the ruling isn’t something that made a lot of headlines, but it will certainly be appearing in criminal law textbooks in the future.

Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA

At the end of its term in June, the Supreme Court ruled in the contentious Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, which dealt with the limits to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the ruling being unanimous, there were deep divisions between the justices on the issue, with the five conservative justices voting to reject EPA’s broadest reading of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but with seven of the nine still allowing the EPA a significant amount of power in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from those stationary sources that it already regulates for other air pollutants.

The decision came over seven years after Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the Court first held that the EPA may regulate greenhouse gas emissions as air pollutants, and it appears that some of the justices have accepted the ruling as established law.  But that doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t continue to be contentious.

State same-sex marriage legalizations

2014 was a revolutionary year for same-sex marriage in the states: a whopping 18 states either legalized same-sex marriage or saw its ban struck down in court.  This is compared to 2013, which saw only eight states with a change in its respective laws, and 2012, during which only two states’ laws changed.

We’ll have to wait and see what 2015 brings for the issue, but there are no signs that this trend will slow down.  And because of the Sixth Circuit’s DeBoer v. Snyder creating a split among the circuits on the issue, the Supreme Court will be taking up the issue sometime in its next term.

Nevertheless, because of how few states remain with bans on same-sex marriage fully intact, it’s highly unlikely that any other year could match the dramatic legal shift that occurred in 2014.

McCullen v. Coakley

Despite their relatively limited legal impact, Supreme Court cases dealing with abortion typically generate strong reactions from the public, at least among those paying attention to such rulings.

And McCullen v. Coakley is no different: despite the limited legal significance of the case, the ruling generated an emotional response from the public.  The case dealt with a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

Of course, Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion was written more from the perspective of the case being a freedom of speech decision, rather than an abortion one: the result that was reached was that the law violated the First Amendment rights of the challengers – a group of abortion protestors.  There was very little discussion about the rights of women to enter the clinics unhindered by harassment by third-parties.

Some of the justices even expressed a desire to overturn a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law that created an eight-foot “bubble zone” around individuals entering an abortion clinic – again, under the guise of First Amendment protection.

If the same justices are sitting on the Court when the next abortion case rolls around, we can expect to see a similar erosion of abortion rights – likely with the justification that said rights interfere with the constitutional rights of the law’s challengers.

Harris v. Quinn

In another decision eroding rights under the guise of enhancing First Amendment freedom of speech protections, the Court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines in Harris v. Quinn that public-sector unions may not exact “agency fees” from non-union workers who are not “full-fledged public employees.”

The decision is significant not only for its justification of First Amendment rights to dismantle decades-old legal protections, but also for its overturning of 67 years of precedent in the specific area of law.

It also demonstrates the Court’s continuing curve to the ideological right, as has characterized the past nine years of its jurisprudence.  We can likely expect more of the same in 2015, unless a conservative justice is replaced by a nominee chosen by President Obama.