2013 in Review: The top legal events, part 4

December 31, 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.)

U.S. v. Windsor

This ruling, along with Perry, were the most anticipated cases of the Supreme Court’s 2012 term (which runs from October 2012 through June 2013).

The background of Windsor likely requires little explanation (but you could find some information on the case here, here, here, here, here, or here).

The case was a challenge to the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act, specifically Section 3 thereof, which required the federal government to limit its definition of marriage to those consisting of opposite sex couples.

Supreme Court LGBTThe Supreme Court struck down the provision in Windsor, effecting massive changes to same-sex marriage laws across the country.

True, the ruling didn’t directly affect any state laws banning same-sex marriage.  But it did have an immediate impact on federal laws, such as allowing tax, social security, and military benefits for same-sex spouses.

However, as I predicted would happen in this post, state same-sex marriage bans are being challenged – many successfully – across the country.  Earlier this month, for example, federal district-court judge Robert J. Shelby ruled Utah’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Shelby’s ruling relied in large part on Windsor – and, ironically, cited to Justice Scalia’s dissent which stated that Windsor would just as easily be applied to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status as it was to DOMA’s Section 3 (Judge Shelby wrote, “[t]he court agrees with Justice Scalia’s interpretation of Windsor).

Similar rulings are all but certain in the future thanks to Windsor, which handed marriage equality advocates a powerful legal tool even though the ruling was based roughly as much on states’ rights as it was on equal protection and due process.

Hollingsworth v. Perry

Although just as hotly anticipated as Windsor, Perry seemed a rather anticlimactic ruling when it was announced.

The case started as a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 voter initiative that re-illegalized same-sex marriage after it was legalized by the state’s supreme court earlier that year.

The question before the U.S. Supreme Court, however, wasn’t limited to California; rather, the case asked the Court to resolve the question of whether the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from limiting the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

Instead of ruling on that question, or even ruling on a narrower one pertaining only to California (as many predicted that the Court would), it decided the case on standing grounds.

Although the effect of the ruling was to overturn Prop 8 (by allowing the original federal district court decision striking down Prop 8 to stand), thus allowing same-sex marriages to commence once again in the state, advocates on both sides of the issue were somewhat disappointed that the Court declined to decisively rule on the matter once and for all.

As discussed earlier, though, Windsor seems to have provided sufficient ammunition to marriage equality proponents to be able to successfully challenge state bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, Perry remains significant both for its role in the (re-)legalization of same-sex marriage in California and in the larger struggle for marriage equality nationwide.

Cert granted in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores

Where this year we had U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, last year’s most anticipated ruling was NFIB. v. Sebelius, in which the Court ruled on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly known as Obamacare.

Security guards walk the steps of the Supreme Court before Justice Elena Kagan's investiture ceremony in WashingtonBut this year, many believe that the Court may once again revisit the issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a case that the Supreme Court agreed to review at the end of November.

The case is consolidated a pair of challenges to the so-called “contraception mandate” – that is, the requirement that employer-provided health care plans cover, “[a]ll Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling.”

However, as discussed in this post, the implications from a Supreme Court decision in this case, though significant, would have very little impact on the ACA.  Instead, a ruling in favor of the challengers would shake up legal precedent by granting corporations broad new powers under the Constitution to “practice religion” – and thereby invoke protections under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

I’ve previously regarded this possibility as unlikely – but not impossible.  Either way, the Court’s decision will certainly be regarded as significant when it’s handed down sometime next year.

Federal Government Shutdown

From October 1 through 16, 2013, the federal government entered a shutdown and reduced most routine operations after Congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014.

US CapitolOne of the most significant points of contention that led to the failure of Congress to appropriate funds for 2014 was Obamacare.  Many members of the Republican-led House of Representatives wanted to leverage the risk of a government shutdown to pass legislation delaying or defunding Obamacare.

The effort ultimately failed and the shutdown was largely blamed on Republicans, who sustained significant political damage as a result (shortly thereafter, however, Democrats felt similar political pains due to the botched rollout of Obamacare’s health exchange website).

Although the shutdown’s long-term effects are mostly political, it remains a legal event as well – and, considering that this shutdown was the first in 17 years, and the third longest in history, one that will remain in the history books for the foreseeable future.

Immigration reform

This year saw the introduction in the Senate of a sweeping immigration reform bill, entitled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (commonly called “S. 744”).

Immigration LawThere are several significant aspects of the bill (discussed in more detail here), among which are provisions that create multiple paths to citizenship available to those currently considered as “unlawfully present” in the U.S.  If passed, the law would certainly be one of the most significant reforms in immigration law in decades.

What’s also significant, however, is the fact that the bill found support from 13 Republicans in the Senate.  In an era of such rigid partisanship, a bill’s garnering support from nearly a third of the party that has traditionally opposed the positions that it represents is worth noting.

This fact makes the act’s passage in the House seem a much greater possibility.  But 2014 will tell for sure.