2014 in Review: The top legal events, part 2

December 18, 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.)

U.S. normalizes relations with Cuba

It never fails that after we create our top 20 list for the year, another event occurs that is important enough to claim a position on the list.  And this event, which was literally announced just yesterday, is certainly significant enough to merit placement in our top 20 of 2014.

After over 50 years of broken diplomatic relations, the U.S. and Cuba announced the normalization of relations on December 17.  Although this will mean the easing of some restrictions as well as the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana, the economic embargo will remain in place until Congress votes to end it.  Considering the opposition that President Obama has faced from Republicans in Congress from the moment he took office, it seems highly unlikely that he will succeed in pressing Congress to lift the embargo.

On the other hand, a recent poll by the New York Times found that most Americans support re-establishing ties with Cuba, so it may be that Congress can flout the will of the people for only so long.

Hall v. Florida

In part 1, we looked at a pair of cases that seemed to reveal the Court’s ideological drift to the right.  Hall v. Florida, however, shows the Court heading in a different direction: making capital punishment of the intellectually disabled more difficult for states to carry out.

legal injection chair executionThe ruling struck down a Florida law that deemed anyone with an IQ score of more than 70 as not being intellectually disabled and thus eligible for capital punishment.  Freddie Hall, the defendant, had scored a 71.

The ruling is significant for Justice Kennedy in particular, who was the fifth vote for the majority, in that it shows an increasing reluctance to defer to the states on the issue of capital punishment (where previous jurisprudence had been greatly deferential).

Abramski v. U.S.

In another 5-4 decision that found Justice Kennedy joining sides with the four liberal justices, the Court decided in Abramski v. United States that held “straw purchases” of firearms – those in which one purchases a firearm on behalf of a third party – violate federal law, in that the purchaser makes false statements on the required federal forms about who is the “actual transferee/ buyer.”

After 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller and 2010’s McDonald v. Chicago, it appeared that the Court was on an unstoppable streak of invalidating firearm restrictions.  Although Abramski is not nearly as broad in its scope as Heller or McDonald, it’s still significant that the Court – specifically, swing voter Justice Kennedy – isn’t completely in the camp of expansive gun rights.

Obama’s executive order on immigration

At the end of November, President Obama announced plans for immigration reform without the involvement of Congress, which would allow over 4 million undocumented immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent President Obamaresidents to remain in the country temporarily, without the threat of deportation.

The actions are among the most sweeping since the immigrations reforms of 1986, and, despite threats from Republicans to sue over the constitutionality of Obama’s actions, there’s not a very realistic chance of success on the issue, since courts are generally quite deferential to the executive branch on the matters of executive orders and immigration policy.

Still, 2015 will tell for certain how this policy pans out.

Riley v. California

Although this ruling largely flew under the radar, having been announced by the Supreme Court at the same time as more high profile cases such as NLRB v. Noel Canning and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Riley v. California remains one of the text message cell phonesingle most momentous of the Court’s last term.

At issue in Riley was whether the police may warrantlessly search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested, and the Court ruled unanimously that they may not.

As I stated in a post at the time the ruling was announced, the ruling has major implications beyond protecting the data of those arrested.  Namely, that the ruling carved out a special protection for digital data that didn’t really exist before: the Court ruled that digital information is to be treated differently than other items that are subject to search incident to arrest.

The attitude by the entirety of the Court portends future rulings that similarly protect data privacy of individuals, and Riley’s importance in the scheme of technological privacy jurisprudence should not be understated.