The Biggest Legal Stories of 2022
Though the world of law is often regarded by impenetrable by those outside of it, lawsuits and new legislation invariably make for some of the most hotly discussed topics of the news cycle. As this most recent year comes to a close, Lawyer Monthly rounds up the biggest and most impactful cases of the preceding months.
The following are a selection of some of the most prominent stories from the legal sphere in 2022. While not necessarily the most damaging to those involved, each has commanded a significant share of press coverage and has continued to dominate the public consciousness even after their technical resolution. We expect to see their shockwaves spread yet further in the new year, setting the tone for many upcoming developments across the legal landscape.
Johnny Depp v Amber Heard Defamation Trial
Celebrity trials can be counted on to generate significant public interest, allowing a window into the lives of otherwise unreachable figures. The Depp-Heard trial proved no exception, gaining international interest throughout 2022 and becoming one of the most high-profile domestic violence cases of all time.
The case concerned a December 2018 opinion piece in the Washington Post written by Amber Heard following her divorce from Johnny Depp after a 15-month marriage, wherein she described herself as having become “a public figure representing domestic abuse”. Depp sued Heard in 2019 for $50 million, arguing that the article’s allusion to alleged acts of abuse by him constituted defamation. Meanwhile, a separate libel case in 2020 against newspaper ‘The Sun’ for publishing an article referring to him as a “wife beater” found against Depp, generating further scandal. The allegations and their subsequent media coverage had severe consequences for Depp’s acting career and led to his departure from key roles in ‘Fantastic Beasts 3’ and other films.
The defamation trial opened on 11 April 2022. In their opening argument, Depp’s lawyers labeled Heard a liar who was “obsessed with her public image”, while lawyers for Heard described Depp as “an obsessed ex-husband hellbent on revenge”. Further anecdotes of the couple’s tempestuous relationship were shared as proceedings continued throughout the spring and early summer. The trial finally came to an end on 1 June as the seven-person jury found that both Depp and Heard had defamed each other and that Heard was unable to substantiate her abuse allegations. In total, $10.4 million in total damages were awarded to Depp.
Celebrity trials can be counted on to generate significant public interest, allowing a window into the lives of otherwise unreachable figures.
Though the outcome of the case had impact on little other than the personal fortunes of Depp and Heard, sensational headlines continued to be generated throughout the proceedings. Research revealed that news coverage of the trial had generated more engagement on social media than articles about the Supreme Court and reproductive rights, even as the future of Roe v Wade hung in the balance.
Elon Musk’s Twitter Purchase Saga
Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter, which handily beat Google’s $1.5 billion acquisition of YouTube to become the largest social media deal of all time, would have been noteworthy enough as a simple transaction. But what might have been a straightforward share purchase turned into a legal quagmire that drew attention from news outlets and social media watchers worldwide.
The saga began with contradictory statements regarding whether or not Musk – then Twitter’s largest shareholder with a 9.2% stake – would join the company’s Board of Directors. After Musk instead announced an offer on 14 April to buy the company at a staggering $54.20 per share, representing a 38% premium above its price at the time, the deal appeared set in stone.
However, Musk subsequently tweeted on 13 May that the deal was “on hold”, citing concerns over spam accounts among Twitter’s user base. He soon moved to formally terminate the acquisition, leading to Twitter filing a lawsuit in Delaware to force him to complete it or else pay a $1 billion termination fee. Months of public feuding followed as Musk blasted Twitter for allegedly misrepresenting its internal issues, before finally coming to a close as Musk agreed to acquire the company on 28 October – a day before the date of the Delaware trial.
The most recently emergent story of those collected in this feature, the Twitter story has also continued to produce new legal concerns well after the deal’s closing. Beginning with the mass sacking of Twitter staff triggering a class action lawsuit in California and compounded by the likely regulatory flashback of the sacking or departure of almost all compliance and content moderation staff, and most recently clashing with the EU’s Digital Markets Act by forbidding the mention of other social media sites on the platform, it seems that Twitter’s (and Musk’s) legal difficulties will continue to generate headlines well into 2023.
Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization
Easily one of the most influential Supreme Court cases of all time, the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision found that a woman’s right to an abortion was protected by the US constitution, thus laying the foundations for the legal recognition of reproductive rights in the contemporary US. The ruling stood for more than four decades as an integral protection for the bodily autonomy of women and a staple of political ‘culture wars’ – which made its overturning as a result of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization all the more shocking.
The case was filed in March 2018 by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, concerning the state’s legislative ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy in all cases excluding medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormalities. A federal district court blocked enforcement of the law the day after it was signed, noting that it deliberately violated the longstanding precedent set by Roe v Wade, a position echoed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in December 2019.
However, when the state of Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to review the ban, the Court agreed to consider the question as to whether all pre-viability prohibitions were unconstitutional, marking the first time it had heard a case on the subject since Roe’s passing. Its ruling was issued on 24 June, with a 5-4 majority of Justices finding that the Constitution contained neither a right to an abortion nor a right to privacy.
The ruling was historical before it even occurred, with the unprecedented leak of a draft memo concerning the Court’s planned opinion causing public outcry almost two months before the decision was made official. While the Supreme Court would find itself in more hot water later in the year as it emerged that Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, had contacted the staff of former president Donald Trump to encourage the overturning of election results in Arizona, the Dobbs decision had by far the greater impact on the Court’s approval among the American public. Like Roe v Wade before it, the case is now set to define the political landscape and the lives of millions of women for years to come.