A Year Of Injustice: 10 Ways The US Legal System Failed Us In 2013

by Tommy Nickolas

In the words of Former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, “the law is what the judges say it is,” and 2013 was a year that once again proved our country's judicial system's ability to let us down and make poor choices.

It's important for us to stay up-to-date with the transactions of our legal system — a place where a law can live or die with a simple swipe of a pen. Check out the top 10 ways our legal system failed us in 2013:

1. Efforts to change the most important Internet law you never knew about.

An apparently small change to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will likely end user-generated content sites as we know them. Section 230 protects website operators from liability for content or commerce posted by its users, which violate state laws.

The startup revolution was based on the fact that web innovators could create platforms for their users without having to worry about being accountable for the content published using platform. Fleshing out a few examples of the law’s effects quickly displays the manner in which this addendum would be both unnecessary and unenforceable:

- Yelp would be liable in Louisiana if a restaurant reviewer showed “contempt” for a member of the restaurant’s staff.

- Google would be liable in Michigan if it displays an advertisement for a car or lottery tickets to a 16-year-old.

- Ebay and StubHub would be liable in Michigan for reselling tickets at a rate above their listed value.

Not only will this law be a disaster to enforce, it provides very little public benefit.

2. The Supreme Court eroded voter’s rights.

In "Shelby County v. Holder" the Court declared Section 4(b) of the Voting Right Act unconstitutional. This section of the law forces states that have previously subjected their citizens to voter discrimination to be monitored by federal supervision.

The 5-4 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Roberts, argued that “things have changed dramatically in the South since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965.” Essentially ruling that racism is now over, the Court found no need for the states (which have been notorious for disenfranchising minority voters) to be subjected to federal preclearance.

Seems like the Supreme Court got this one wrong, as it only took 24 hours before legislators were pushing discriminatory voter identification laws in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a wide-ranging dissent on behalf of herself Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, arguing for the continued importance of the Voting Rights Act's preclearance provision in preventing voter discrimination.

"The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective," Ginsburg wrote. "The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed."

3. The Supreme Court eroded workers’ rights.

This year, the Supreme Court strengthened employers’ positions in harassment suits. The Court’s June decision in "Vance v. Ball State University" narrowed what it means to be a “supervisor,” ridding employers of liability beyond a very low negligence standard.

4.Unfair use of affluenza.

The judicial system seems to support the unfair use of affluenza as a condition that only rich, white kids can get. Judge Jean Boyd, known as the “affluenza judge," allegedly lets rich white kids go free while she sentences poor black kids more severely for lesser crimes. Ethan Couch was pardoned from jail time after killing four people in a drunken stupor, as he suffers from the ailment.

But Boyd didn’t consider affluenza when she sentenced a 14-year-old black kid to a juvenile detention center for 10 years after he punched a man who died after falling to the ground and hitting his head on the pavement. Just like Couch, the boy admitted to punching the man, but unlike Couch, he had no intentions of killing that day. The apparent message from the judge is that if a poor black kid kills one man accidentally, he’ll get locked up, but if a rich white kid kills four people, even accidentally, he’ll walk free.

5. The Travyon Martin / George Zimmerman case.

George Zimmerman never denied shooting Trayvon Martin, but he said he did so in self-defense. An armed Zimmerman chose to follow Martin against the police department's recommendation, triggering the fight that led Zimmerman to fatally shoot Martin. Furthermore, successive reports have revealed that Zimmerman has pulled his weapon on both his ex-wife and current girlfriend, displaying his propensity for weapons in situations that clearly do not validate self-defense. 

6. The Supreme Court ignores lack of standing to strike down affirmative action.

Traditional procedural law maintains that in order to bring a case before the Supreme Court, a party must have “standing” to do so, meaning that the case must be more than a “generalized citizen’s grievance.”

However, Justice Roberts and the majority ignored the lack of standing in "Fisher v. University of Texas." In this case, all the parties agreed that the plaintiff had no particularized claim to substantiate her standing. But, the lack of standing qualification was ignored in order to reach the merits and strike down affirmative action. In fact, the opinion of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative US Appeals Courts, specifically noted that the appellant lacked the necessary standing to pursue the case. 

7. California law chills the use of Internet sites.

An unconstitutional California law creates liability for Internet sites that show advertisements to teenagers for items like pepper spray and lottery tickets. Similar to the changes to Section 230, this law would provide little public benefit while being nearly impossible to enforce.

8. Federal Internet sales tax. 

The new federal Internet sales tax is a new imposition on startups and small business owners. With new collection and filing requirements, and allocating up to 600 auditors on online businesses, this law exposes Internet business to a much greater tax liability.

9. New law removes your control from online accounts. 

This new law violates individuals’ rights to their property by allowing a court-appointed executor to counter express wishes for how online accounts are handled when their users die. This appears to be a clear government encroachment on citizens' property rights.

10. The Supreme Court turns its back on the Comcast lawsuit, creating a barrier in bringing anti-trust suits against big companies.

The Supreme Court turned away a class-action lawsuit against cable provider Comcast in a decision that made it more difficult to file those types of suits in federal court.

While the opinions of our judicial system can send many unclear and muddled messages, one thing is clear: big business was a big winner in 2013. And our judicial system hasn't changed a bit. Bring on the new year.

Photo credit: WENN