In this three-part series, legal analyst Andrew Cohen takes a look back at the year in the law. Part 1 focused on the year's most under-reported legal stories. Part 2 focused on the year's most over-reported ones. And Part 3 wraps up the package with a look at major legal events and issues.
A Grand Canyon in the Law
Lawlessness is to Arizona what horses are to Kentucky, a point of pride if not an outright industry. This was true
when the place was a territory (see, e.g., Tombstone
), it was true in the mid-1980s when the Arizona Outlaws
played in the USFL, and it was true in 2010, when virtually every story of national consequence in the law has either originated in or been impacted by the legal strategies and priorities of elected officials in the Grand Canyon State. And true to form, in nearly each case, Arizona has thumbed its nose at federal power and authority. The Wild, Wild West, indeed.
My colleague Jill Lawrence already has homed in
on the extraordinary influence Arizona has had this year on the political and cultural landscape. But nowhere is the trend more pronounced than in the law. Let's
start with one of the year's top-10 legal stories -- the ferocious battle between the federal government and some of the states over immigration policy. Arizona led the charge. It's controversial immigration measure
, SB 1070, requires local police
to check for the immigration status of anyone stopped under "reasonable suspicion" of unlawful status. The measure has been halted
by the federal courts, for now, but emboldened conservative lawmakers in other states (like Texas
) are contemplating similar laws.
In the meantime, Arizona officials announced in July that Gov. Jan Brewer wouldn't meet
with her Mexican counterparts (and officials from other border states) to talk about matters of common interest because the Mexican officials had boycotted a meeting scheduled in Arizona. While this was occurring, National Public Radio, Rachel Maddow and others were researching and reporting on a powerful story
about the close relationship between the prison industry and the rise of the new immigration law. NPR concluded: "The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them."
Health care also was a huge national legal story this year. And there was Arizona, on the ramparts
, joining in at least two separate federal lawsuits brought to challenge the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
. And just in case the point of that pending federal litigation wasn't clearly heard in Washington, Arizona voters in November approved a constitutional amendment
that bars "any rules or regulations that would force state residents to participate in a health-care system." Brewer said: "Arizona has a long and proud history of fighting the Washington, D.C., elite's insatiable appetite for bigger government at the cost of states' rights. The battle over the Affordable Care Act better known as 'ObamaCare' is the latest round. Once again, the feds have gone too far."
Capital punishment is typically on the list of big legal stories in any given year. Although the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings
about the death penalty in America, perhaps the year's most memorable story was the search by states for sodium thiopental, one of the drugs contained in the three-drug combination typically given to prisoners when they are executed by lethal injection. Evidently there is a shortage of the drug
stateside because of concerns in Europe over its use in capital cases. Arizona officials managed to get some sodium thiopental -- just where, they would not disclose
to a federal judge in a case that generated Supreme Court review -- and then use it on Jeffrey Landrigan. And when California officials seemed thwarted in their search for the drug, Arizona evidently stepped up and shared its stash
. What are neighbors for, after all.
Although Brewer for a long time this year was the face of the state, it's fair to say that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is probably the most famous Arizona lawman around. "Sheriff Joe" was enormously popular on the speaking circuit this year -- he boasted on Twitter of giving a pink bra
to Sarah Palin, for example. But he was also sued for alleged civil rights violations by the Justice Department, his office was under investigation for at least two serious matters, and the local authorities had to schedule a contempt hearing
to get him to answer questions about finances. While all of this was occurring, Sheriff Joe was forming
an "immigration posse," the legality of which is certainly something to watch for in 2011 and beyond.
By far the biggest Supreme Court decision of the year was Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission
, the First Amendment case that gutted
federal campaign finance laws, including Arizona Sen. John McCain's own McCain-Feingold. And here again Arizona finds itself in the thick of the fight. Like many other states, Arizona reacted to Citizens United
by promptly enacting a state law
requiring corporations and labor unions to disclose
all "independent expenditures" to campaigns. And the Supreme Court last month accepted a challenge
to Arizona's state's public campaign finance law, offering the justices another opportunity to examine the scope of the First Amendment.
Arizona's year in the law was in many ways America's year in the law. And in this fashion did Arizona thus position itself in 2010 first among equal states in the federalism battle now under way in the country. Ask me again in a year which side seems to be winning in the courts. In the meantime, even the Grand Canyon itself could not escape litigation. This past year, conservation groups and Native American tribes were in court
trying to halt uranium mining just six miles from the rim.