Top Legal Stories of 2011

2011 has been an interesting year. The economy remained sluggish. The 2012 presidential campaign got into full swing. We had a war in Libya (remember that?). Of course, this is a law blog, so I won’t dwell on those subjects except to the extent that they have a significant legal angle.

But there’s still plenty to write about – 2011 has been an incredibly eventful year in the legal world. Important constitutional questions about the power of the president were brought to the forefront of public discussion. The Supreme Court agreed to hear what may well be its most momentous case in decades. A longstanding policy regarding sexual orientation and military service was changed. And there were plenty more, far too many to discuss in a single blog post.

So, without further ado, here are what I view to be the most important legal news stories of 2011, in no particular order, and chosen by my subjective opinion of which stories were the most interesting, along with a bit of arbitrary whim. So, it’s the definitive list, obviously.

  1. The legality of the military invention in Libya: 2011 may be remembered as a year of profound change in the Middle East, with one of the most notable cases being in Libya, where the U.S. and its allies, backed by a UN resolution, launched air strikes, helping rebels overthrow Moammar Ghadaffi. However, there has been some controversy over America’s role in the operation. Under the War Powers Resolution, passed after the Vietnam War, the President must obtain the approval of Congress for any overseas military engagement lasting longer than 60 days. President Obama did not seek such approval (to be fair, every president since the law was passed has ignored it, arguing that it’s unconstitutional). Given the divided political culture in Washington, some politicians and commentators have argued that the U.S. intervention in Libya was illegal. This controversy brought the War Powers Resolution back into the public limelight, and sparked a heated (though brief) public debate about this important constitutional issue.
  1. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed: The policy that barred gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly in the U.S. military was repealed in December of 2010, and the repeal went into full effect in September of 2011. As of the writing of this blog post, there have been no reports of any significant problems resulting from the repeal. There are predictions that, in the long run, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly will have broader positive implications for expanding the legal rights of gays and lesbians.
  1. Massive employee lawsuit against Wal-Mart thrown out: The largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history (and it’s now likely to hold on to that record forever, for reasons that will soon be obvious) was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the proposed class – comprising 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees – was too large. The court never ruled on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims that Wal-Mart engaged in a pattern of gender discrimination, leaving the plaintiffs open to bring a new lawsuit with a smaller class of plaintiffs, which marks a trend of the Roberts court limiting consumer class-action lawsuits.
  1. New York legalizes same-sex marriage: The state of New York became the largest state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. It also marked the first time a Republican-majority state legislature passed such a law. Once again, it brought into focus the fact that the federal government does not recognize these unions, denying lawfully-married same-sex couples the many federal benefits that come with marriage.
  1. States take immigration enforcement into their own hands: Several U.S. states set themselves up for a legal showdown with the federal government over who has (and doesn’t have) the power to enforce federal immigration laws. Immigration is generally considered the exclusive domain of the federal government. However, with immigration becoming a hot-button political issue, many states began passing laws giving state authorities unprecedented authority to enforce immigration laws. The federal government, concerned about diplomatic relations with foreign countries and maintaining a consistent nationwide immigration policy, is challenging some of these laws in court. You can bet that 2012 is going to see much more of this.
  1. Supreme Court to hear healthcare reform cases: Legal challenges to President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – began almost immediately after the law was passed. Federal courts considering the constitutionality of the “individual mandate” (the provision of the law that requires almost all Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a financial penalty) have come out on both sides. The Supreme Court, as everybody predicted, is going to hear the case, and hopefully resolve the issue once and for all. However it rules, you can bet that the court’s decision (expected in the summer or fall of next year) is going to be one of the top legal news stories of 2012.
  1. Free speech applies to the worst of the worst: Westboro Baptist Church, the group best known for its virulent anti-gay stances, and its claims that every bad thing that happens in the world is a result of God punishing humanity for allowing gay people to exist, and picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed overseas, which, naturally, the friends and families of these soldiers found incredibly upsetting. One family sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Supreme Court ruled that the church’s actions were protected by the First Amendment. Most legal commentators reluctantly agreed that the court’s ruling was correct, even if almost everyone found it personally distasteful.

2011 was definitely an eventful year in legal news. And considering that most of the stories discussed above are far from over, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a lot of them make the 2012 list, as well.

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