Legal Year In Review

Timothy McVeigh AP

CBSNews.com Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen looks at courtroom drama produced by 2001.

The legal world, like the rest of the world, could easily be separated in 2001 between "before" and "after." Before Sept. 11, the biggest legal story of the year by far was the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the inexcusable bureaucratic foul-up which preceded it. After Sept. 11, the biggest legal story of the year was the government's reactive and proactive responses to domestic terror.

No other law-related stories, with the possible execption of Microsoft's continuing battles with federal and state government, comes even close to the other two. The United States Supreme Court, which had made so much news in 2000, made precious little of it in 2001. It was as if the Justices purposely and collectively decided to lay low this year in order to permit the heat generated by their election-deciding votes in December 2000 to cool off.

Even former president Bill Clinton, who had much so much unwanted legal news in 1998 (with the Lewinsky investigation) and 1999 (with his impeachment trial) registered merely a blip early in the year with his prosecution-avoiding deal with the Independent Counsel and his controversial pardon of fugitive financial guru Marc Rich. And does anyone know where Monica Lewinsky or Linda Tripp or Kenneth Starr are these days? Me neither.

Gary Condit? That story always was more political than legal, especially since no one yet seems to know what happened to Chandra Levy. Jon Benet Ramsey's murderer(s) still remain(s) missing and literally nothing happened in the investigation into her death in 2001. O.J. Simpson had his requisite trial and even had his house searched as part of a big sting operation but by the time it occurred no one really seemed to care except the tabloids.

If there was any legal trend it came, as usual, from Florida, where two young black teenagers were prosecuted for murder and then convicted as adults. Lionel Tate (12 when he committed his crime) and Nathaniel Brazil (13 when he committed his) now stand as symbols for-- take your pick-- aggressive prosecutions permitted by zealous legislators or foolish and unconstitutional treatment of children as adults.

For sheer home-life horror, the Andrea Yates' case probably stands alone. Yates is the Houston mother who reportedly drowned all five of her children in the bathtub of their home and then called the police. But the central question about Andrea Yates will be answered in 2002-- when she goes to trial-- and so this sad story doesn't rate this time around.

Microsoft? Well, it's battle with the feds and 19 states was about the only legal story which was big both before Sept. 11 and after it. Before the terror attacks, a federal appeals court gave Microsoft a victory by kicking U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson off the case but gave the governments an even bigger victory by upholding much of Jacksn's trial ruling. After the attacks, the U.S v. Microsoft case was big news because the Bush Administration bailed on it, figuring that the Justice Department had bigger fish to fry than (like it or not) one of America's most successful companies.

That leaves the two biggies. Before Sept. 11th, McVeigh was the poster boy for terror in America, Osama bin Laden notwithstanding. His execution on June 11th was the first federal execution in a generation and was supposed to herald what was considered way back then (just six months ago!) a new era of swift and severe punishment from a government that seemed hellbent on executing as many "qualified" people as quickly as possible

But the intended message of the McVeigh execution was distorted by news, in May, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had "misplaced" thousands of pages of documents from its files-- pages which should have been turned over to the McVeigh defense prior to his trial. The disclosure delayed McVeigh's execution until June and further tarnished the reputation of the FBI. In retrospect, the controversy seems almost quaint. After all, while the feds were worrying about McVeigh's trial papers, the Sept. 11 hijackers were training to fly planes into buildings.

Since Sept. 11, however, there have been two main streams of legal news and each overshadows even the McVeigh story. The first is the government's prospective response to terror in the form of the USA Patriot Act and countless other law enforcement measures designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility that such an attack ever can occur again on American soil. The other government response has been a reactive one -- the indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, the indictment of Richard Reid, the decision still looming on John Walker, the American Talib.

These stories will probably dominate the legal world in 2002 as well. Moussaoui probably will be tried next year. Walker perhaps as well. Other suspects may become criminal defendants. Military tribunals may be used. Portions of the USA Patriot Act will be challenged in federal court and federal judges will begin to shape its contours. Much of the rest of the story of the Sept. 11 attacks will, in ways large and small, be told in courtrooms in 2002.


By Andrew Cohen
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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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