ABA Journal Holiday Weekly

10 most important legal stories of 2015

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2015 gavel

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As the ABA Journal staff looked back over the past year, these were the 10 legal stories which seemed the most important and prominent. ABA Journal legal affairs writer Victor Li provides a summary of each below.

1. Love wins.

Proponents of marriage equality couldn’t have asked for a better result than the one the Supreme Court handed them in June when it issued a sweeping decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. The majority opinion, which was authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry, and that the 14th Amendment forbade states from banning or refusing to recognize same-sex marriages.

“Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry works a grave and continuing harm,” Kennedy wrote for a five-justice majority. “The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”

The decision may have settled the legal question of same-sex marriage. However, the issue continues to be fodder for politicians, activists and others who have cited religious freedom to justify disobeying or resisting the ruling. Several Republican presidential candidates, as well as a handful of elected officials and judges have said that they would refuse to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell. Kim Davis, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, became a martyr for the cause when she agreed to go to prison rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In the meantime, some states have turned to religious freedom laws to excuse businesses from providing services for same-sex couples looking to get married. Indiana and Arkansas both enacted controversial laws this year, before modifying them under pressure from human rights groups and businesses.

2. The megafirm cometh.

Dentons made numerous headlines in 2015 as the global goliath acquired or merged with multiple other firms to solidify its status as by far the largest law firm by lawyer headcount in the world. In January, Dentons combined with Chinese firm Dacheng, creating a 6,600-lawyer firm. Three months later, Dentons acquired McKenna Long & Aldridge, and then closed the year with a flurry of activity.

In November, the firm expanded its presence in the Pacific Rim by combining with Australian firm Gadens and Singaporean firm Rodyk & Davidson. It also agreed to join with OPF Partners in Luxembourg. In the same month, Dentons entered into another three-way merger, this one in Latin America with Colombia’s Cardenas & Cardenas and Mexico’s Lopez Velarde, Heftye y Soria. Along the way, Dentons also opened up offices in Budapest and Milan. Throughout all of the mergers, Dentons executives have consistently stated that there is no cut-off point for the firm’s growth and that the firm would continue to pursue growth opportunities in the immediate future.

“Many law firms will exaggerate their capabilities to their clients and say that they can meet their clients’ demands even before the client is finished asking the question—even if they really can’t,” Dentons global chairman Joe Andrew said in November after the Pacific Rim combination. “We want our firm to have the kind of talent and depth to be able to say yes without hesitation, and mean it.”

3. Dewey defeats DA (sort of).

After more than a year of preparation, the criminal trial of three Dewey & LeBoeuf executives for their role in the firm’s 2012 collapse finally got underway in Manhattan Supreme Court in May. The trial took four months, and deadlocked jurors deliberated for 22 days before the presiding judge declared a mistrial.

In the end, none of the three defendants—ex-Dewey chairman Steven Davis, former executive director Stephen DiCarmine and former chief financial officer Joel Sanders—were convicted on a single count. They had been indicted on over 150 counts of fraud, larceny and falsifying business records, among many other things. But jurors acquitted the three on several dozen charges while failing to reach a verdict on 93 other counts.

Towards the end of the year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office gave Davis a deferred prosecution agreement and offered plea bargains to both DiCarmine and Sanders (as well as a fourth defendant, former client relations manager Zachary Warren, who was to be tried after the other three).

Observers have criticized prosecutors for presenting an overly complicated case that confused jurors. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, for his part, has promised a “simpler and shorter” retrial, if there is one.

4. Bar exam passage rates trend downward.

If nationwide stats are any indication, the annual rite of passage for thousands of aspiring attorneys has become much harder to complete successfully. In March, the National Conference of Bar Examiners revealed that the 2014 summer bar exam produced the lowest passage results in almost a decade. The news got worse in September, as the average score for July 2015 bar exam takers dipped to its lowest point in 25 years. Passage rates were also low in New York, for instance, in which only 70 percent of first-time test takers passed the exam—the lowest rate in 11 years. California, Georgia and Pennsylvania also experienced big drops in passage rates, while New Jersey and the District of Columbia each saw a slight decrease from the previous year.

Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, blamed the declining passage rates on a diluted graduate pool. “It is reasonable to believe we are capturing the results of a downward trend in applications that has not been completely matched by a downward trend in law school admissions,” Moeser told the National Law Journal (sub. req.)

5. Police shootings go viral.

With the prevalence of traffic cameras, smartphones and even police bodycams, nowadays almost anything that happens in public ends up on YouTube. A rash of videos showing police officers killing unarmed African-Americans helped galvanize activists and protesters. In April, the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department led to rioting in the city and a Department of Justice probe.

Meanwhile, that same month, a video of a police officer shooting Walter Scott to death in South Carolina as he ran away resulted in murder charges against the officer in question.

At the end of the year in Chicago, newly released footage of a shooting from the previous year of 17-year-old African-American LaQuan McDonald resulted in the termination of Chicago’s chief of police, Garry McCarthy. Only months earlier, McCarthy had participated in a panel at the ABA Annual Meeting which was proposing potential reforms to improve relations between police and minority communities.

In Cleveland on Dec. 28, a grand jury decided not to indict police officers for the 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The boy had been playing in a park with a toy gun, and was killed by police who responded to a neighbor’s report of a possible gun. The incident had also been caught on video, and called into question the officers’ original account of events.

6. No Syrian refugees need apply.

After attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in the worst massacre on French soil since World War II, several U.S. governors have refused to roll out the welcome mat for refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria, although none of the identified Paris attackers has been a Syrian refugee.

More than a dozen governors have stated that they would refuse to accept any Syrian refugees in their state, even though some commentators have argued that they lack the authority to do so. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Indiana Gov. Mike Pence over his refusal to accept Syrian refugees in his state, while in Texas, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission has filed suit to make sure Syrian refugees are blocked from the state.

A federal judge in Texas ruled against the commission in December.

7. Tsarnaev convicted of Boston Marathon bombing.

Barring a reversal on appeal or the abolition of the death penalty in all federal cases, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will become the first person to be executed in the state of Massachusetts since 1947. Tsarnaev was convicted in April of killing three people and wounding hundreds more after detonating a bomb near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

In May, he was sentenced to death, despite the best efforts of his legal team, which was led by renowned defense attorney Judy Clarke. Along with her fellow defense attorneys, Clarke, who is best known for keeping the Unabomber, Jared Loughner and Susan Smith off death row, has petitioned for a new sentencing hearing citing a recent Supreme Court decision that found that a federal sentencing statute was unconstitutionally vague. The team has also petitioned for a new trial.

8. Executive power.

Frustrated by gridlock in Congress, President Barack Obama has increasingly turned to executive orders to pursue reforms in controversial areas such as gun control and immigration. This year, legal challenges to his 2014 orders granting temporary legal status to millions of immigrants while delaying deportations indefinitely hit the courts, and it was bad news for the president.

In February, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas blocked Obama’s executive orders after finding that the Department of Homeland Security was required by law to deport undocumented immigrants. After the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in November, the White House filed a cert petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether or not it will hear the case.

In the meantime, in the wake of several recent deadly mass shootings, Obama is reportedly finalizing plans for another set of gun-related executive orders that would expand background checks on gun purchases, Bloomberg and the Guardian report. In 2013, the president issued executive orders on guns following a school shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Among the orders he is considering is one that would require more sellers to conduct background checks before selling any guns, according to the Guardian.

9. Decline of capital punishment.

2015 was a historic year for the death penalty. According to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 49 death sentences handed down this year, the lowest since 1973. Meanwhile, the number of executions was 28—the lowest number since 1991. The Death Penalty Information Center’s report found that several factors played a role in the comparatively low number of death sentences and executions this year, notably a moratorium in Pennsylvania; a Connecticut court decision finding capital punishment unconstitutional; and a legislative ban on the death penalty in Nebraska.

Another factor in the number of executions might be the difficulty some states have had in obtaining lethal injection drugs. Arizona had a shipment of sodium thiopental seized by the FDA because the international manufacturers the state purchased from were not approved by the federal agency. Some states decided to delay their executions due to a shortage of safe lethal injection drugs. Other states passed laws authorizing different means of executions. In Utah, they brought back the firing squad as a backup execution method, while Oklahoma OK’d the use of nitrogen gas to asphyxiate its condemned prisoners.

10. The Cosby show.

Bill Cosby’s legal woes mounted considerably in 2015, as he continued to deal with accusations that he drugged and raped dozens of women. In July, a memorable cover of New York magazine featured every one of the 35 women who had accused him of sexual assault up to that point.

That same month, Cosby, who has denied any wrongdoing, was irate when a judge released a sealed deposition of the long-time comedian and TV star testifying frankly about procuring Quaaludes and giving them to women with the intent of having sex.

While the statute of limitations has passed for almost all of his alleged actions, Cosby could face a criminal trial for one incident that allegedly occurred in 2008 at the Playboy Mansion. Cosby also faces numerous civil suits, including one filed by model Janice Dickinson for libel after Cosby denied raping her.

In December, Cosby decided to go on the offensive, suing seven of his accusers for defamation. It’s looking like 2016 is shaping up to be yet another busy and potentially costly year—both in terms of money and personal freedom—for Cosby.

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