Top 10 California Legal News Stories of 2010

California always generates some of the biggest legal news headlines throughout the year, and 2010 was no exception.  From celebrity trials to landmark constitutional rulings, California’s courts and lawyers got plenty of national and local media coverage.

Here is a list of what we thought were the most interesting, most fascinating, most significant, and most bizarre California legal news stories of 2010:

Vaughn Walker10.  Prop. 8 Ruling. In August, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8 — the California ballot initiative which passed in November 2008 banning same-sex marriage — was unconstitutional. The federal judge made his ruling in a lawsuit filed by two gay couples who had argued that the voter-approved ballot initiative violated their civil rights.   Read the full ruling here.

Judge Walker stated that:

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

You can read more about Judge Walker’s ruling here.

Jessica's Law9.  Judge Enjoins Enforcement of Jessica’s Law. In November, a Los Angeles judge ruled that “Jessica’s Law” — which restricted how close registered sex offenders could live from parks or schools — violated sex offenders’ constitutional rights. In his ruling, Judge Peter Espinoza wrote that “[t]he court is not a ‘potted plant’ and need not sit idly by in the face of immediate, ongoing and significant violations of parolee constitutional rights.”

Proposition 83, which was more commonly called “Jessica’s Law,” passed in 2006, and imposes strict residency requirements on sex offenders, including forbidding registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any public or private school or park where children regularly gather.  Opponents of the law argued that the 2,000 foot requirement made it nearly impossible for sex offenders to live in densely populated cities.  You can read more about Jessica’s Law here.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell8.  California Judge Stays Enforcement of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In September, Riverside-based U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips struck down the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards gay members of the military.

The following month, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals froze Judge Phillips’ order pending the court’s hearing the case on its merits. The move shifted attention to the Obama administration which has been working to persuade the U.S. Senate to repeal the law before a new Republican-led Congress is sworn in.

Jerry Brown7.  California’s Gubernatorial Election.  The election of a new Governor easily makes this list, as new Governor Jerry Brown will undoubtedly have a major impact on California law over the next four years.  The election of Brown also marks a shift from a Republican to a Democratic Governor, which combined with the passage of Proposition 25 (lowering the margin to pass a budget from 2/3rds to a simple majority vote in the Legislature) could mean major change in Sacramento.

Hare Krishna6.  California Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Hare Krishna Solicitation at Airports.  In March, the California Supreme Court upheld a 1997 Los Angeles City ordinance prohibiting individuals and organizations from soliciting and receiving charitable donations at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The ordinance was passed by the L.A. City Council in 1997, in response to complaints from passengers and airport visitors about solicitation at the airport. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California, Inc. (commonly known as the “Hare Krishnas”) sued to enjoin the airport from enforcing the law, which eventually led to the Supreme Court ruling.

5.  U.S. Supreme Court Sides With California Law School On Student Groups.  In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the policy of San Francisco’s U.C. Hastings law school that student groups do not have the right to restrict its membership to practicing Christians.  The case received national attention as Christian groups argued that the law school’s policy forced it to allow those engaging in a “sexually immoral lifestyle” to become members or leaders. The majority decision, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled that the UC Hastings College of Law’s decision was a fair application of its anti-discrimination policy.

Death Penalty4.  Judge Blocks Resumption of Executions.  In late August, Marin County Superior Court Judge Verna A. Adams blocked California officials from resuming capital punishment in California, which has been on hold since a 2007 injunction against executions.  Judge Adams ruled that the injunction would remain in effect unless and until the court approves newly revised lethal injection procedures.

The ruling comes close on the heels of a ruling by a Riverside County judge setting an execution date of September 29, 2010 for death row inmate Albert Greenwood Brown, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1980.

Bell City Officials Accused of Corruption3.  Eight City Officials Accused of Corruption. A working class suburb of Los Angeles, tiny Bell, California, received national attention during the summer over oversized city salaries for city council members and city staff.  In July, the Los Angeles Times revealed that City Manager Robert Rizzo — who later resigned and was charged with corruption — earned $787,637.  The pay was almost twice President Obama’s salary and the the highest municipal salary in California.  City Councilmembers earned over $100,000 for part time work, in a city of 36,000 where the median annual income is less than $35,000.

Scott Rothstein2.  California Attorney Convicted of $1 Billion Ponzi Scheme. I’m actually surprised this news story didn’t merit greater attention, but I suppose in a post-Madoff era a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme just isn’t the same. In June, former member of the California  State Bar and disbarred Florida lawyer Scott Rothstein was sentenced to 50 years in prison for operating a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme using faked legal settlements. Rothstein actually got off easy, considering U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn could have imposed a 100-year sentence for Rothstein’s five felony convictions, even though the sentence was 10 years more than prosecutors suggested.

Before his downfall, Rothstein was known for his taste in fancy Italian sports cars, an 87-foot custom yacht, glittering watches and big cigars.

In laying down the sentence, the federal judge noted he was particularly disturbed by the fact that the former attorney used the judicial system for his scams, even forging signatures of at least three federal judges.  You know you aren’t going to get off easy when a judge is sentencing you and you used the judicial system for your own scam.

Randy Quaid

Cousin Eddie

1.  Randy Quaid’s Canadian Vacation.  This story may not be the most legally significant, but it sure is bizarre. On September 18, Randy Quaid and his wife Evi were arrested at a guest house located in Montecito, California, where they had allegedly caused $5,000 in damages to the property.  The Quaids argued they owned the home but the current owner later provided documentation that he had purchased the property in 2007 from a man who had in turn purchased it from the Quaids.

In later interviews, the Quaids said they believed people were singling out celebrities to either steal their fortunes, or kill them. They said that actors David Carradine — who was found hanged in a Bangkok hotel room — and Heath Ledger — who died of a drug overdose — were victims of the same murderous conspiracy.

“I believe these actors were whacked,” Quaid said. “… We believe there to be a malignant tumor of star whackers in Hollywood.”

Quaid and his wife are currently seeking asylum in Canada, which apparently is star whacker-free.

Did we miss any can’t-miss California legal news stories of 2010?  If so, let us hear it in the comments!

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