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6 Most Important Supreme Court Decisions of 2016

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The past year was really something else. 2016 saw the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the end of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court dreams, the death of David Bowie. Not even Mariah Carey made it out unscathed.

But, before we bid the year a final adieu (or good riddance), it's worth looking back at the Supreme Court's most important decisions. For, throughout all of 2016's ups and downs, the Court continued to shape American law, government, and politics, with important rulings in the areas of criminal law, civil rights, immigration, and more. Here are our top six.

1. United States v. Texas, the End of Obama's Immigration Reform Plans

The President Obama's immigration reform ended not with a bang, but a whimper. A deadlocked, eight-justice Supreme Court affirmed a Fifth Circuit ruling halting Obama's Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents plan, or DAPA, which sought to create a path towards legal status for millions of immigrants. With the election of Donald Trump months later, the future for such immigrants has become increasingly uncertain.

2. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Affirmative Action in College Admissions

In Fisher, which is technically Fisher II, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas's consideration of race, as part of a holistic admissions process, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The use of race in public university admissions has had a tenuous future in the Court almost since it was first endorsed in 1978 and many thought that Fisher could deal such race-conscious admissions their final blow.

That didn't happen, however.

Not only did the University of Texas's unique admissions process survive Supreme Court scrutiny, Fisher marked the first time Justice Kennedy voted to support race-conscious admissions, another sign of the justice's potential shift to the left.

3. Welch v. United States, Limits to 3-Strikes Laws

In Welch, the Supreme Court extended its ruling in Johnson v. United States, allowing it to be applied to those convicted before Johnson was decided. In Johnson, the Court held that the federal three strikes law's residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. That opened up thousands of sentences to challenge and Welch quickly became the most cited case of the Court's last term.

4. Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, Striking Down Restrictions on Abortion Providers

In a roundabout attempt to limit abortion, the Texas legislature adopted some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country -- but these regulations were targeted not at women seeking abortion services, but the clinics providing them, effectively shutting down most clinics in the state. Those restrictions were struck down in Whole Woman's Health, as the Supreme Court ruled that abortion provider regulations must be based on convincing medical evidence and cannot unduly burden a woman's right to abortion.

5. Salman v. United States, Insider Trading With Friends and Family

It's somewhat unnatural to look at Supreme Court cases by calendar year. The Court, after all, organizes itself around terms that stretch from October of one year to June of the next, with most of the major decisions coming out in June. That means that almost all of this year's most impactful opinions come from last term.

But, there are a few recently decided cases that are worthy of inclusion. Salman tops that list. Decided in early December, this insider trading case upheld the presumption of a benefit when an insider gives confidential information to a family member who then trades on it. The ruling undoes a recent Second Circuit opinion that threatened to upend the so-called "friends and family" rule and which could have significantly limited insider trading prosecutions.

6. Samsung Electronics v. Apple, Design Patents

In latest battle in the long running patent war between Samsung and Apple, the Supreme Court addressed design patents for the first time in decades. On the same day that it decided Salman, the Supreme Court ruled that Samsung's infringement of Apple's design patents on its smartphones did not necessarily require the company to turn over all profits from those phones. Rather, damages could be limited to the profits attributable to infringing parts.

The ruling, of course, is not revolutionary. It's certainly no "one man, one vote." But though utility patents significantly outnumber design patents, design patents are quicker to obtain and are a growing source of IP litigation. The Court's unanimous decision in Samsung limits the windfalls successful design patent litigation might bring, though it still leaves plenty of issues for lower courts to work through.

Of course, there were plenty of other important cases decided in the last year as well. If you have another that you think deserves consideration, let us know via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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