Top 10 Legal News Stories Of 2012
Stand Your Ground Laws
The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, sparked an outcry over Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground’ law, which allows people to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense. However, at the time of his death, Martin was unarmed and had been carrying a small amount of cash and a bag of Skittles candy. Police have said officers were prohibited from arresting Zimmerman because he claimed to have used “justifiable” force. Allegations of racial motivation for both the shooting and police conduct as well as intense media attention contributed to public demands for Zimmerman’s arrest. The case triggered a wave of widespread demand to change or repeal Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law. Some 21 states have ‘stand your ground’ laws on the books. Nationally, justifiable homicides by private citizens have been slowly rising since 2005. According to the FBI’s most recent data, there were 278 such killings in 2010, the highest amount in 15 years.
Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare
“Obamacare,” President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation of his first term, survived the Supreme Court test this June, after facing challenges to the act’s individual mandate, which will require Americans to buy health insurance or suffer a financial penalty. New rules will make it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. The act is designed to help employers promote wellness, and it ensures families buying their own coverage get basic, essential benefits similar to what private insurers offer in the corporate marketplace. In a 5-to-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius declined to consider the constitutionality of the entire Obamacare law, instead confining its holding to just two provisions, the insurance mandate as well as Medicaid expansions. The court held that the mandate was constitutional because the penalties imposed by the law for failure to purchase health insurance were merely taxes imposed on the uninsured, and taxation is constitutional. For the first time in America’s 236-year history, this Supreme Court decision ruled that the Constitution allows Congress to tax inactivity.
DREAM Act – Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative made the most immediate and tangible impact on immigration in 2012. Announced in June and launched in August, the initiative has already provided temporary relief to over 100,000 DREAMers, or beneficiaries under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. Though the program has faced plenty of obstacles — from restrictionists incorrectly depicting it as an unconstitutional power grab to state governments attempting to deny driver’s licenses to grantees — it has been successfully implemented so far and enjoys the approval of most Americans. The program came largely as a result of the activism of courageous DREAMers around the country; its announcement and implementation likely played a role in the strong Latino turnout in favor of the president and the Democrats. In the end, this temporary fix for potentially 1.8 million young people may be the precursor to a permanent fix for millions more.
Hardly a day passed in 2012 without news of a patent lawsuit or a high-dollar patent acquisition. Apple and Samsung topped patent litigation news, going head-to-head in a federal courtroom over the question of Samsung’s alleged infringement of Apple patents. In the end, Apple won the $1 billion suit. Samsung appealed and the two will meet again for a second trial in 2014. The Wall Street Journal reports patent litigation will continue to be a big issue in 2013. The Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department earlier this month convened a day-long series of discussions on whether ‘patent-assertion entities,’ or PAEs, and also referred to as ‘trolls’ are disrupting competition in high-tech and other markets. The proportion of patent lawsuits filed by PAEs has grown to 40 percent in 2011 from 22 percent in 2007, according to a recent study by Lex Machina, an intellectual property litigation, data and analytics company. Some companies declared a patent litigation truce this year with HTC and Apple settling a long-running patent suit with a 10-year license agreement. Nokia and RIM also buried the hatchet in late December.
Jerry Sandusky Scandal
The Sandusky child molestation scandal delivered new developments on a daily basis in 2o12, including the former assistant football coach’s conviction and sentencing and head coach Joe Paterno’s death from cancer two months after he was fired for his part in covering up the sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. Penn State’s tumultuous year ends with Jerry Sandusky serving a 30-to-60 year sentence in state prison and three university leaders fighting charges that they covered up his child abuse. Through the Second Mile program, Sandusky met his molestation victims, who were children participating in the organization, and several of them testified against Sandusky in his sexual abuse trial. Penn State has been the subject of significant media criticism because several members of its staff, ranging from the university president down to a graduate assistant, covered up Sandusky’s assaults. In June 2012, Penn State University implemented a policy to require mandatory reporting of child abuse by any Penn State employee working with children. The policy also requires all Penn State employees working with children to go through a background check and training related to child abuse and reporting requirements. Former university president Graham Spanier and administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz maintain their innocence.
Voter ID Laws
Ahead of the 2012 elections, a wave of legislation tightening restrictions on voting swept across the country. In the past two years, states across the country passed a wave of laws that could make it harder to vote. Since 201119 states passed 25 laws and two executive actions, each intended to ensure that a registered voter is who he says he is and is not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else’s name. The laws require that registered voters show ID before voting. Exactly what they need to show varies. Some states require a government-issued photo, while others call for just a current utility bill or bank statement. More than a dozen states have passed laws that require voters to show photo identification at polls, cut back early voting periods, impose new restrictions on voter registration drives or redraw electoral maps. On Nov. 9, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections.
Voters Approve Same-Sex Marriage
As of Nov. 7, 2012, gay marriage has been legalized in nine U.S. states (Maine, Md., Mass., Conn., Iowa, Vt., N.H., Wash., and N.Y.) and the District of Columbia. Thirty-one states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Six states have laws banning gay marriage. Proponents argue that same-sex couples should have access to the same marriage benefits and public acknowledgment enjoyed by heterosexual couples and that prohibiting gay marriage is unconstitutional and discriminatory. A November 26-29 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage while 46 percent are opposed. In 2013, the Supreme Court will consider two new cases that may decide the future of gay marriage. The court has never before heard a case regarding same-sex marriage, and its decision could possibly overturn state and federal laws.
Marijuana Legalization In Two States
Voters in both Colorado and Washington approved bills that would make recreational marijuana use legal in their states on November 6. Marijuana remains an illegal drug under U.S. federal law, and the Department of Justice has maintained that pot remains a federally controlled substance. States have been looking for guidance from federal authorities on how they will handle the conflict with state laws. However, with President Obama publicly stating that federal authorities aren’t going to prioritize drug enforcement in either of those states, it appears that citizens of both states can “light up” without fear of prosecution. Medical use of marijuana is legal in 18 U.S. states. But federal officials have still continued to crack down on some providers in those states. Obama has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to examine the issue. Holder has said the Justice Department is still considering its options but will act “relatively soon,” possibly within a month.
The massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in a Newtown, Conn. accelerated the gun control debate in America. Directly after the massacre, President Obama declared gun control will be a central issue in his second term. President Obama announced the creation of a task force, with Vice President Joe Biden as its leader. The Obama administration has set a mid-January deadline for its special committee to offer concrete proposals to deter mass shootings. Obama also listed some specific measures that he supports, including a new ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines and closing the “gun show loophole” on background checks for gun purposes. The creation of the task force marks a significant shift in his administration’s stance toward gun control. Gun laws in the U.S. vary from state to state, and gun rights are defended by the firearms industry and the National Rifle Association, or NRA. NRA President David Keene said that the group is ready to participate in the gun-violence conversation.
BP Settlement In 2010 Gulf Oil Spill
It took over two years, but a federal judge has given final approval to BP PLC’s settlement with businesses and individuals who lost money because of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In a 125-page ruling issued Dec. 21, Judge Carl Barbier closed the book on the $7.8 billion settlement that will resolve thousands of claims filed in a class action suit, Bloomberg reports. Still under Barbier’s watch is a separate ruling related to medical settlements for workers involved in the spill cleanup who claim that they were sickened by exposure to oil or the dispersants used to break up the spill. Barbier wrote that the settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate – and no objection has proved otherwise. Barbier has not ruled on a medical settlement for cleanup workers and others who say exposure to oil or dispersants made them sick — he has just taken on economic and property damage settlements. The settlement covers people and businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and some coastal counties in eastern Texas and western Florida.