2013 in Review: The top legal events, part 1

December 11, 2013

Top 20 of 2013(Editor’s note: Throughout December, we’ll be looking at the top 20 legal events of 2013, as chosen by the Legal Solutions editorial staff.)

Shelby County v. Holder

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court announced its decision in this highly anticipated case, which was a constitutional challenge to Sections 4 and 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (you can read more about the law in any of these posts).

The Court ended up siding with the law’s challengers and struck down Section 4, effectively rendering Section 5 ineffective until Congress can get around to fixing it (which, given its recent track record, will likely take quite a while).

Although the invalidation of Section 4 is quite historically significant in itself, it’s not the most significant part of the ruling; instead, it’s the effect that the ruling will have on elections in the immediate future.

Specifically, without Sections 4 and 5 in place, Southern states will be able to implement restrictive voter policies that, as some proponents freely admit, are intended to reduce Democratic voter turnout.

The exact effect on elections remains to be seen, but it’s very likely that there will be some effect because of the ruling.

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

The day before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Shelby County, it ruled in another case with serious racial implications: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Unlike in Shelby County, though, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of the race-conscious policies being challenged in Fisher.

Or, at least, close enough: the Court vacated the appeals court’s decision, instructing the lower court to use a “strict scrutiny” analysis to “consider and judge” the University’s admissions process.

Had the Court not decided the case on procedural grounds, it’s very likely that Fisher would have gone the same way as Shelby County, particularly since the reliably liberal Justice Kagan recused herself in Fisher.

As decided, Fisher, at worst, buys a few years for race-conscious school admissions policies until the case makes its way back to the Court; at best, Fisher may have saved these policies outright by reaffirming the precedential value of 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger (which upheld the policies).

Boston Marathon bombings

On April 15, 2013, during the Boston Marathon, two pressure cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring over 250 others.

As tragic as this event was, what is its legal significance?

There were actually many legal issues that arose from the actions of law enforcement in investigating the case and apprehending suspects.

First, the surviving bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was questioned by law enforcement before he was read his Miranda rights, causing some commentators to declare a constitutional violation.  Thus far, it doesn’t seem that argument has seen any traction in Tsarnaev’s legal proceedings (and, as explained in this post, Supreme Court precedent seems to be on law enforcement’s side in this case).

Second, three acquaintances of Tsarnaev were arrested by the FBI on various obstruction of justice charges.  However, these three men – all 19 years old at the time – seemingly committed the offenses for which they are being charged out of panic and naiveté.  The outcome of their criminal cases remains to be seen.

Failure of national gun reform laws

In last year’s top 20, we listed the Sandy Hook massacre, noting that it may provide the impetus for new gun control legislation in 2013.

However, no new federal-level gun control legislation emerged in 2013, but not for lack of trying.  Several proposals were introduced in Congress, including a new federal assault weapons ban and universal background checks.  None of these proposals became law, though, thanks in no small part to the political influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

In addition, state-level gun reform laws were met with stiff resistance from the NRA, with the organization supporting recall elections for two Colorado state senators who had supported new gun control legislation; the recalls were successful.

The significance of this is that, even in the face of 2013 being one of deadliest (if not the most deadly) year for mass shootings, political efforts to reform gun laws met with effective, well-organized resistance nationwide.

The Senate Democrats’ “Nuclear Option”

On November 21, Senate Democrats voted to change the required number of votes to end filibusters against all presidential nominees, except those for the U.S. Supreme Court.

I discuss the implications of this rules change more fully in this post, but here’s a quick rundown:

Because the filibuster is now off the table to Republicans, President Obama can successfully nominate more liberal judicial candidates and more of them.

These candidates include positions on the various federal courts of appeals, which exert a great deal of influence over the policy of the federal courts – and, often by extension, state courts.

Thus, unless control of the Senate changes hands after the 2014 elections, President Obama can comfortably fill judicial vacancies until the end of his term – and the vast majority of these candidates will exert their own influence in the judiciary long after Obama has left office.