2014 in Review: The top legal events, part 4

December 31, 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.)

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

The end of each Supreme Court term for the past several years has seen a “blockbuster ruling” that is released on the final day of its respective term – one that also happens to be the most heavily anticipated by the public.

2011 had Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett and Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 2012 saw NFIB v. Sebelius, and 2013 gave us U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.  2014’s “blockbuster ruling” was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Hobby Lobby held, for the first time in U.S. history, that a corporation is able to “practice religion” within the context of the First Amendment.

This wasn’t the only aspect of the ruling that broke with previous jurisprudence on the issue, but frankly, it shouldn’t come to a surprise to anyone at this point that the Court’s conservative majority would have reached this result, as it is keeping in line with the trend of the past eight years of allocating greater and greater legal protections to corporations.

Unless the makeup of the Court shifts, we can certainly expect this trend to continue in 2015 and beyond.

National Labor Relations Board v. Canning

Canning was another end-of-term ruling from the Court, and was one that was also highly anticipated by the public.

Rather than dealing with a labor or employment related question, as the heading may imply.  Rather, the question resolved by the ruling involved the extent of the president to make appointments during Senate recesses.

The case is significant for several reasons.  First, this was the first Supreme Court ruling on presidential recess appointment powers in U.S. history.  Second, although it leaves these presidential powers largely intact, it does impose a limitation (appointments are not valid when the Senate is in recess for three or fewer days) that the president faces, again, for the first time in U.S. history.  Finally, this limitation is significant because of the next event…

Republicans retake the U.S. Senate

Aside from the political ramifications, there are definite legal ones to the results of the 2014 elections.  Specifically, the power that the Senate Republicans have to block President Obama’s judicial appointments.

With the Canning ruling, Obama can no longer make appointments during brief Senate recesses, meaning that his appointments will face the full opposition of the Senate Republicans, who are now in the majority.

Besides these executive appointments, a Senate Republican majority also means that Obama’s judicial nominations will have a very difficult time getting confirmation.  If the rabid opposition that Republicans have shown to virtually all of Obama’s proposals over the past six years are any indication, there is a very slim chance that any nomination will see confirmation without serious concessions from the president.

Schuette v. BAMN

BAMN, decided in April, was another high profile Supreme Court ruling from this most recent term.  Unsurprisingly, it advanced yet another conservative cause in upholding a state constitutional ban on affirmative action in public employment, public education, or public contracts.

Interestingly, in the majority were the white males of the Court, including the normally liberal Justice Breyer, leaving only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor were in the dissent (Justice Kagan recused herself because she participated in the case when she was Solicitor General).

With last term’s dismantling of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, BAMN seems to further cement the Court’s view that protections for racial minorities are no longer necessary, and we can expect future rulings to reflect this view.

Executive order: Minimum wage for federal contractors

On February 12, 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13658, “Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors,” to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for workers on Federal construction and service contracts.

The order came on the heels of a protracted battle in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage – a battle in which Democrats were not successful.  The string of major executive action by Obama this year, including those taken on immigration reform, has proven to be a reasonably effective alternative to working with a completely gridlocked Congress in accomplishing policy objectives.

Although most legal experts maintain that these executive actions are constitutional, and that any legal challenges to them will very likely fail, there is always the chance – and an increasing one, at that, it seems – that some courts will flout precedent in favor of politics in reaching a decision that invalidates these actions.

2015 will both likely bring additional executive action from the president, along with new challenges to those actions.