2014 in Review: The top legal events, part 1

December 16, 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.)

ABC v. Aereo

As usual, the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June saw a large number of rulings being announced.  Among them was ABC v. Aereo, in which the Court held that online streaming service provider Aereo was liable for copyright infringement for its practices.  If you’re interested in the details, we have several posts available on this ruling here, here, here, and here, but, in short, Aereo was using a loophole in the copyright code to essentially act as a cable service provider without having to pay royalties for rebroadcasting the TV channels.

Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissent that the majority simply invented a new standard to reach the result that they did because they weren’t happy about the fact that Aereo was exploiting this loophole.  As Scalia states, though, this new standard will “sow confusion for years to come,” in that it could find liability against an online streaming service for simply appearing to operate in a manner that violates copyright law – without actually doing so.

It remains to be seen whether Scalia’s predictions come to pass, but the ruling certainly didn’t do anything to clarify the law.

Supreme Court denies certiorari in state same-sex marriage cases

After 2013’s U.S. v. Windsor, state after state saw its same-sex marriage ban either struck down or removed (either through legislative or electoral means).  With almost no exception, courts consistently found state same-sex marriage bans to be unconstitutional, citing Windsor to lead them to this result.

Many commentators believed that a Supreme Court review of the issue was imminent, with a number of these cases seeking review before the high court at the outset of its October 2014 term.

To the shock of these commentators, on October 6, the Supreme Court refused to review these cases – meaning that the lower courts’ rulings all stand – and all of these rulings held their respective state bans to be unconstitutional.  And since some of these rulings were made by federal circuit appeals courts, the Court’s refusal to review these decisions actually had the effect of either invalidating some states’ bans or creating the binding precedent needed to make a legal challenge a virtually guaranteed success.

After this action by the Court, it seemed all but certain that same-sex marriage would continue unfettered toward becoming a legal reality.  This seeming inevitability was short-lived, however, since just over a month later…

Sixth Circuit creates split by upholding state same-sex marriage bans

The Sixth Circuit decided DeBoer v. Snyder, in which it upheld the constitutional validity of the same-sex marriage bans of the four states in its jurisdiction (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee).

As I wrote in a post after the ruling was handed down, the author of the opinion seems to believe that the role of a judge is not to determine whether the challenged laws violate the U.S. Constitution, but rather whether ruling one way or another will usurp the will of the people as expressed through their respective state legislatures.  The author also notes that the purpose of marriage is for the state to regulate people’s sexual relations – because without this regulation, the author posits, society would break down and we would have mass chaos on our hands.

The significance of this ruling, however, isn’t its logical fallacies or its being an anachronism; it’s the fact that it created a federal circuit split on the issue of same-sex marriage – thereby forcing the Supreme Court to review the issue at some point in the near future.

And it very likely won’t be during this term, which means that we won’t have disposition of this issue until June of 2016.  By that point, there will almost certainly be even more states that have legalized same-sex marriage, making Justice Kennedy all the more likely to vote to strike down the state bans – so we pretty much know how things will turn out when the Court rules on the matter.  Now we just have to wait a lot longer for it.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

2010’s Citizens United v. FEC is a Supreme Court ruling that remains contentious to this day because of how it eroded away at federal campaign finance regulations for corporations by apparently extending First Amendment freedom of speech protections to them.

2014 saw yet another of these erosions in the form of McCutcheon v. FEC.  I’ve talked about this case in two posts already, but, briefly, it involves a business owner who wanted to give more money than he did in the 2012 election cycle, but couldn’t because of the 2002’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s (BCRA) aggregate limits that restrict how much an individual may contribute to campaigns during a particular two-year election cycle.

The same five justice majority of Citizens United struck down the challenged provisions in McCutcheon, but also going further by holding that political donations to candidates and parties – not just expenditures for political speech as in Citizens United – are subject to First Amendment protection.

This is a significant expansion of corporate political expenditure rights, and it’s also significant in that it indicates that the Court is looking to accelerate the shift in jurisprudence begun in Citizens United.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

In another 5-4 decision by the Court’s conservative majority, Town of Greece v. Galloway upheld as constitutionally permissible the practice of the town of Greece, New York, of opening its monthly board meetings with a prayer (subject to some restrictions).  In a separate concurrence, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, asserted that the Establishment Clause doesn’t apply to individual states and municipalities – seemingly claiming that states and cities may establish their own religions.

Aside from the major implications the ruling has for Establishment Clause jurisprudence, it’s also indicative of the Court’s continued rightward drift, which seems to become more prominent each term.