The Most Important Legal Stories of 2013

This year's lesson is that some courtroom battles must be fought over and over again, from one generation to the next.

Plaintiff Edith Windsor greets the crowd outside the Supreme Court after arguments in her case against the Defense of Marriage Act. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Where you stand on the legal events of 2013 depends entirely upon who you are. If you are an advocate of gay rights, for example, it was a year of breathtaking success in court and state legislatures. So, too, if you are a corporate executive or shareholder or lobbyist benefiting directly from the U.S Chamber of Commerce's remarkable string of victories at the United States Supreme Court. And it was a great year for George Zimmerman, at least for a few months anyway.

If you are a poor person of color in the South, or a young or elderly person who doesn't drive, it was a terrible year after the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. So, too, if you are a woman who might want to visit an abortion clinic in the 24 counties in Texas now without one. It wasn't a good year either for the nation's spies or for the hundreds of millions of people they spied upon. And it was another bad year for O.J. Simpson.

Boston Killers Face Justice

A courtroom sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in federal court in July 2013 (Margaret Small/Associated Press)

If you are a federal prosecutor it was a good year. America's most notorious mobster, James "Whitey" Bulger, age 84, finally received some measure of justice. After being convicted in federal court following a dramatic trial trial he was given two life sentences for the murder and mayhem he caused for decades in South Boston. Bulger never will leave prison alive. Nor, likely, will Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. He ends 2013 wondering whether the feds will seek the death penalty against him.

Secret-Tellers Deal With Consequences

Kevin LaMarque/Reuters

If you are Chelsea ( Bradley) Manning it was a bad year. The former Army intelligence analyst got a 35-year sentence from a military judge for leaking classified information to Wikileaks. Whether fellow leaker Edward Snowden had a good year or a bad year in 2013 depends entirely upon whom you ask. He began the year as a consultant. He ends the year as an international fugitive—or hero—depending, again, upon your point of view.

The President Finally Fills Empty Robes

President Barack Obama nominated Patricia Ann Millett in June for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate finally confirmed her this past Tuesday. (AP)

If  you are a federal judicial nominee, 2013 ended up being a pretty good year. The end of the judicial filibuster for lower-court nominees means that you and dozens of your fellow candidates are finally getting substantive votes on your nominations so you can get robes and begin to chip away at the dozens of "judicial emergencies" that now exist in one jurisdiction after another all across the country. This also makes 2013 a good year for frustrated federal litigants, whose trials have been long delayed because of understaffed benches.

The Gun Lobby Remains All-Powerful

Adrees Latif/Reuters

If you are an advocate of gun control, 2013 was a terribly frustrating year. The gun lobby is so strong not even the slaughter of children in a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012 generated meaningful legislative reform on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, in Colorado, scene of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting massacre, tepid new state gun laws were immediately met by a successful recall election against the local politicians who endorsed them. The feds were even unable or unwilling to repeal a Bush-era law that affords special protection against liability to gun manufacturers.

Marijuana Legalization Moves Cautiously Ahead

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

If you are a supporter of marijuana legalization, 2013 was a year of transition, promise, and peril. All throughout the year, officials in Colorado and the state of Washington scrambled to set up regulatory schemes to safely and lawfully sell—and tax—recreational marijuana. The Justice Department agreed not to stop these efforts, at least not yet, even though the state regulations violate violate federal law. The coming year will see these laws in action—they are the canaries in the coal mine for legalization around the nation.

Prison Conditions Enter the Public Conscience

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

It was a good year if you are a federal prisoner, especially if you are an older one, or one who has been languishing in a penitentiary for a non-violent crime. The year 2013 was marked by a series of bipartisan efforts at sentencing reform—including a declaration by the Justice Department itself that it will seek to reduce prison overcrowding by ordering the early release of some inmates. For those people, 2014 may prove to be their first year of freedom in decades.

But if you are a prison official, 2013 was a difficult year—a year when decades of overcrowding and mistreatment finally began to seep into the conscience of the public and into court. There were serious constitutional challenges raised—and horrific allegations made about inmate abuse—in New York, Wisconsin, California, Mississippi, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Missouri, and in our federal prisons.

And it was a bad year if you are a mentally disabled death row inmate, especially if you are in Georgia or Texas or Florida or Alabama, where officials continue to ignore the Supreme Court's mandate in Atkins v. Virginia.

Legal Luminaries Pass Away

Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Anthony Lewis is widely viewed as the father of legal journalism in the United States. (Matthew Payton/Getty)

The year was marked by the deaths of many people whose lives impacted the law. In February, the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin died at 81. In March, Anthony Lewis, the greatest legal journalist of his era, died at 85. In June, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson died at 76. In August, the internationally renown defense attorney Jacques Verges died at 88. In November, Delbert Tibbs, a death row exoneree of uncommon grace, passed away at 74. And in the spring, 58-year-old Tom Clements, the progressive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was shot to death when he opened the front door of his home.

The Supreme Court Overturns DOMA

Same-sex marriage supporters celebrate outside the Supreme Court in June. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Future generations will remember 2013 as the year same-sex marriage was finally legitimized on a national scale. United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court case striking down the heart of the Defense of Marriage Act, is an already-iconic decision that will be studied for decades in law schools. It signals the end of one era of equal protection jurisprudence and the start of another. Because you can bet that 2014 will be full of legal challenges at the lower court levels, as judges and local officials and advocates on both sides of the great marriage divide try to make meaning of the rulings in Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

Voting Rights Suffer Major Setbacks

Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Shelby County vs. Holder in February. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The same may be said of Shelby County v. Holder, the voting rights case in which the Court's conservatives declared, despite great evidence to the contrary, that "things have changed dramatically" in jurisdictions where voting laws have  long been marked by racial prejudice. That ruling signals the effective end of nearly 50 years of success from a federal law that protected the right to vote for millions of citizens. With post-Shelby voting-rights litigation already pending in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and several other states, 2014 will help shape the contours of whatever protections are left under the Voting Rights Act.

We know a lot more today about the Supreme Court than we knew last December and we'll know a lot more one year from now than we do today. Between now and then, the justices will render vital rulings on campaign finance reform, and abortion protests, and religious expression, that will shape legal coverage in 2014. And by this time next year, the latest challenges to the government's sprawling surveillance operations will have had at least their first few days in federal court, open or otherwise.

Meanwhile, the lesson of this year's biggest cases—and of the looming fight over abortion rights for that matter—is clear: civil rights, human rights, are rarely won irreversibly in America. Some battles must be fought over and over again, from one generation to the next. So don't be fooled by the historic changes that came to the law in 2013. The fight over same-sex marriage is not yet over. The fight over voting has not been yet reborn. And the fight over abortion never really ended. The year 2013 was a beginning, and an end, but mostly a reminder of the grand continuity of things.