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Biggest law stories of 2013: Crucial cases poised to shape the legal and political landscapes for years to come

The announcement of the year's most-searched news stories on Yahoo might fool you into thinking that the sensationalized murder cases of NFL star Aaron Hernandez, or boyfriend slayer Jody Arias, were the dominant legal events of the year. Hardly.

The fact is, 2013 featured a slew of crucial cases and legal developments that are poised to shape the legal and political landscapes for years to come. From gay marriage to government surveillance, here's a brief guide to the decisions and debates within the law that mattered most.

1. Supreme Court guts Voting Rights Act

The biggest legal story of the year - the United States Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act - might actually prove to be the biggest political story of 2014. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court declared on a 5-4 vote that jurisdictions with long histories of racial discrimination in voting laws (mostly in the South) no longer had to get pre-approval from federal officials before changing their voting rules. The law violated equal protection by treating various voting jurisdictions differently, the conservative justices ruled.

Perhaps recognizing the bipartisan support that exists for the law (Congress had renewed the particular provision that offended the court, Section 4, as recently as 2006), the justices invited lawmakers to go ahead and fix what they ruled to be broken in the statute. But there is little reason to think that such a remedy is on the way: No amendment to the Voting Rights Act, no new and improved preclearance provision, is pending on Capitol Hill. And this means the 2014 midterm elections will be influenced significantly by voter-suppression efforts now underway in jurisdictions that once were covered by Section 4. In fact, just hours after the court struck down Section 4 in Shelby County, for example, eager officials in Texas moved to restore dubious voter identification requirements that had been blocked by the federal courts under Section 4.

2. Government surveillance finally goes too far

And by far the biggest political story of the year - the disclosure of widespread domestic surveillance efforts leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden - may prove to be the biggest legal story of 2014. This is especially true in the wake of a dramatic ruling last week in Washington by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, who declared that portions of the NSA's surveillance program "likely" violated the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The case, styled Klayman v. Obama, concerns the bulk gathering of phone call metadata and now heads to (the newly replenished) D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on its way, perhaps, to the Supreme Court itself.

And this is just a prologue: From the Snowden surveillance revelations will soon flow a series of cases that will challenge in federal courts virtually all aspects of what we know about the program.

3. New fronts open in same-sex marriage fight

A pair of much-watched Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage in June gave gay and lesbian couples across the country greater rights and benefits - the justices struck down the core of the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, and they blocked a California referendum to halt same-sex marriages. But these landmark rulings don't mark the end in the legal or political war over same-sex marriage - and no justice suggested they did.

Already, in fact, we are seeing courtroom clashes that raise some of the questions the Supreme Court stoically refused to answer in June. For example, can a same-sex couple that is lawfully married in a state (like California) that recognizes such marriages get divorced in a state (like Mississippi) that does not? That lawsuit is only beginning to wend its way through the courts and in the year ahead, we'll see hundreds of these sorts of legal conflicts played out in state and federal courts all over the country. Just this past week, a federal judge in Utah struck down that state's same-sex marriage ban while the Supreme Court of New Mexico, in a unanimous decision, declared that the state's constitution could not preclude such marriages. The stakes will be high: Same-sex marriage proponents want to press the advantages they gained in 2013, and expand same-sex marriage rights. Opponents of same-sex marriage, embattled after the June rulings, want to draw their own lines, and keep same-sex marriage from spreading more than it already has. The justices in Washington won't revisit this issue in 2014. But they may have to in 2015.


Government spy cams in China can't see through the smog

Smog in China
© China Foto Press
As well as health issues, heavy smog in cities such as Jilin is creating serious security concerns for authorities.
Last month the smog in China made international news when state media agencies ran whitewash stories about the countries pollution problems. The state media said that the smog actually had many benefits and that it bolstered national defense by creating a hazy target for enemies.

Now the government and state media in China has switched up their stance saying that the smog is a threat to national security. This recent change of heart is due to the fact that the governments spy cameras in the streets are having difficulty snooping on local citizens.

Kong Zilong, a senior project engineer with Shenzhen Yichengan Technology and an expert in video surveillance technology, said the security devices that could function in heavy smogs had yet to be invented.

"According to our experience, as the visibility drops below three metres, even the best camera cannot see beyond a dozen metres," he said.

Of course, the government is intent on finding a way around this issue.

Snakes in Suits

Welfare Kings: RBS boss gets £1.5m shares after three months in job as 115 Goldman Sachs executives pocket £3m each


Goldman Sachs said 115 of its top staff around the world shared a cash pool worth £122million, or more than £1million each.
  • Ross McEwan only took over the State-backed bank in October
  • He was given stock as compensation for missing out on bonuses
  • Announcement made after markets closed for New Year holiday
  • Archbishop says foreign banks 'in denial' about their role in crisis
  • Barclays boss admits it could take decade for sector to win back trust
Fury over bankers' pay erupted again last night after the new boss of RBS was quietly handed an astonishing £1.5million in free shares.

Ross McEwan, who only took over the State-backed bank in October, was given the stock as compensation for missing out on bonuses at his previous employer.

The announcement was made after markets closed for the New Year holiday, and was seemingly designed to attract minimum publicity.

Mr McEwan's payout emerged as Goldman Sachs revealed 'obscene' pay deals worth more than £3 million each to 115 of its senior bankers.

The bumper packages were disclosed as Archbishop Justin Welby said foreign-owned banks in the City of London were 'in denial' about their role in the financial crisis, and Barclays boss Antony Jenkins admitted it could take a decade for the sector to win back public trust.

Deborah Hargreaves, of the High Pay Centre, said: 'When you look at the pay everyone else is getting, to see bankers on that kind of salary is just not justified.'


Congress letting 55 tax breaks expire at year-end (again)

© Getty Images
In an almost annual ritual, Congress is letting a package of 55 popular tax breaks expire at the end of the year, creating uncertainty - once again - for millions of individuals and businesses.

Lawmakers let these tax breaks lapse almost every year, even though they save businesses and individuals billions of dollars. And almost every year, Congress eventually renews them, retroactively, so taxpayers can claim them by the time they file their tax returns.

No harm, no foul, right? After all, taxpayers filing returns in the spring won't be hurt because the tax breaks were in effect for 2013. Taxpayers won't be hit until 2015, when they file tax returns for next year.

Not so far. Trade groups and tax experts complain that Congress is making it impossible for businesses and individuals to plan for the future. What if lawmakers don't renew the tax break you depend on? Or what if they change it and you're no longer eligible?

"It's a totally ridiculous way to run our tax system," said Rachelle Bernstein, vice president and tax counsel for the National Retail Federation. "It's impossible to plan when every year this happens, but yet business has gotten used to that."


Federal court violates Constitution: Upholds laptop searches at U.S. border

© Unknown
A federal court has tossed out a lawsuit trying to prevent the government from searching laptops, cellphones and other devices at U.S. border checkpoints.

The circuit judge's decision to uphold the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy on Tuesday was a blow to civil liberties groups that argued the practice violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

According to government documents, officials at the border search and copy the contents of thousands of people's devices each year. Border agents are allowed to look into the devices and detain them for a short period of time without a reasonable suspicion that the traveler has committed a crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a lawsuit challenging the DHS policy in 2010, on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association and Pascal Abidor, a French-American man whose laptop was confiscated at the Canadian border.

But in his opinion on Tuesday, Judge Edward Korman wrote that the groups did not have standing to dispute the DHS searches because "there is not a substantial risk that their electronic devices will be subject to a search or seizure without reasonable suspicion."

Top Secret

Appelbaum: 'Scary' NSA will spy on you - every which way they can

© RT
Jacob Appelbaum
Security researcher Jacob Appelbaum revealed what he calls "wrist-slitting depressing" details about the National Security Agency's spy programs at a computer conference in Germany on Monday where he presented previously unpublished NSA files.

Appelbaum is among the small group of experts, activists and journalists who have seen classified United States intelligence documents taken earlier this year by former contractor Edward Snowden, and previously he represented transparency group WikiLeaks at an American hacker conference in 2010. Those conditions alone should suffice in proving to most anybody that Appelbaum has been around more than his fair share of sensitive information, and during his presentation at the thirtieth annual Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg on Monday he spilled his guts about some of the shadiest spy tactics seen yet through leaked documents.

Presenting in-tandem with the publishing of an article in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Appelbaum explained to the audience of his hour-long "To Protect and Infect" address early Monday that the NSA has secretly sabotaged US businesses by covertly - and perhaps sometimes with the cooperation of the tech industry - coming up with ways to exploit vulnerabilities in the products sold by major American companies, including Dell and Apple, among others.

That was only the main theme of many covered throughout the presentation, during which Appelbaum repeatedly revealed previously unpublished top-secret NSA documents detailing the tactics and techniques used by the NSA to intercept the communications of seemingly anyone on Earth.


Israeli lawmakers push petition to free Pollard

© Veterans Today
Jonathan Pollard
A huge majority of Israeli lawmakers has signed a petition calling for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard imprisoned in the United States.

The petition, signed by 106 out of Israel's 120 lawmakers, was handed over to Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday.

Peres says it was "both a right and a duty" to bring the bipartisan request by the Israeli lawmakers to President Barack Obama's attention.

Green Light

Fiat buys Chrysler: Courtesy of U.S. taxpayers bailout of Italian company

© Examiner
At the beginning of 2014, Detroit may be bankrupt, but they're cheering the five-year-old U.S. auto bailout in Italy. That's because after being the beneficiary of billions in U.S. taxpayer largesse, Fiat, the leading Italian auto company, is going to buy its final stake in Chrysler from that other big bailout recipient, the United Auto Workers (UAW).

"Chrysler's Now Fully an Italian Auto Company," reads the Time magazine online headline. But wait a minute! Wasn't the bailout supposed to be about saving the American auto industry?

As Mark Beatty and wrote in The Daily Caller in November 2012, after presidential candidate Mitt Romney made the controversial claim that Fiat would be expanding production of Chrysler's Jeep in China (a claim that turned out to be correct),
The real outrage arising from the 2009 Chrysler bailout is not that its parent company, Fiat, is planning to build plants in China. It's that the politicized bankruptcy process limited Chrysler's growth potential by tying it to an Italian dinosaur in the midst of the European fiscal crisis. The Obama administration literally gave away ownership of one of the Big Three American auto manufacturers to an Italian car maker struggling with labor and productivity issues worse than those that drove Chrysler to near-liquidation.
As we noted in the piece, much of Chrysler's profits from its overhauled line are going to prop up Fiat's failing, money-losing Italian business, rather than to expanding production and jobs in the U.S. Moody's had downgraded Fiat's credit rating to "junk" even before the Obama administration arranged for it to acquire a Chrysler stake, and in Autumn 2012, Moody's gave Fiat another downgrade that the Financial Times described as even "further into 'junk' territory."


Anti-smoking fascism: New York City Corp. sues FedEx for shipping cigarettes to homes

© TheRightCurmudgeon.com
New York City has sued FedEx Corp, accusing the package delivery company of illegally delivering millions of contraband cigarettes to people's homes, violating a 2006 settlement.

Monday's lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and seeks $52 million of civil fines and unpaid taxes from FedEx, which is based in Memphis, Tennessee.

It marks one of the last acts by the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose more than decade-old campaign to ban smoking in various public and private places has been credited with saving thousands of lives and become a blueprint for other cities.

According to the city, FedEx created a "public nuisance" through its partnership with Shinnecock Smoke Shop, located on the Shinnecock Indian Nation reservation in Southampton, New York, to ship untaxed cigarettes to residential homes.

FedEx allegedly did so despite, and even while negotiating, a February 2006 agreement with then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to stop such deliveries in New York, an agreement later expanded to cover deliveries throughout the country.


Putin vows to totally destroy terrorists after bombings

© Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to continue to fight against terrorists and destroy them following two recent bombings in the southern city of Volgograd.

Putin said on Tuesday that the explosions represented inhumane attacks and warned that Moscow would "fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation," the Interfax news agency reported.

The statement followed the deployment of some 5,200 police forces to Volgograd to check traffic and inspect public transport following two bomb blasts on Sunday and Monday.

Police have started sweeps throughout the city, detaining 87 people.

Approximately 34 people were killed and 72 injured in the twin blasts.