In a year like 2020, you might assume there’s been little to no good news the entire year. But there have been many significant and positive legal changes in the U.S. this year.
All eyes were on the presidential election, but many state elections held referendum votes that will not only directly change the laws in those states, but will likely also cause rippling effects upon policies throughout the country. I anticipate we’ll feel some of those effects in North Carolina.
Let’s look at some of the highlights of the year.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a decision in Bostock v. Clayton County and ruled that LGBTQ individuals shall be protected under existing anti-discrimination laws. The court’s decision found that discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation is essentially discrimination based on sex. This new legal precedence extends existing protections from sex-based discrimination to LGBTQ individuals.
The Supreme Court came to this decision before the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has had a more conservative judicial record before joining the Supreme Court. There will likely be a shift in balance for the court with the passing of progressive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and this addition of a conservative justice in her place. It is uncommon to have the same issue brought again before the Supreme Court after a recent decision, so the Bostock v. Clayton County decision will hopefully remain safe from judicial scrutiny by the recent conservative majority.
One of the most significant policy shifts comes from numerous ballot initiatives passed for increased minimum wages.
This trend started earlier in 2020 with 28 states and 48 cities and counties increasing their minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. It continued through the November elections, with more states voting to increase their minimum wages. Floridians voted to increase their state minimum wage to $15 per hour, joining only a few other jurisdictions that have increased the minimum wage that high.
This could potentially garner more support at a national level for increasing the federal minimum wage, a change initiated by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year when they passed an act to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. The Raise the Wage Act did not pass the Senate, though, so the federal minimum wage remains the same for now.
From Legalizing Marijuana to Criminal Justice Reforms
Other states passed referendum votes on a wide range of issues.
Four states legalized marijuana. Oregon decriminalized small quantities of certain drugs and established addiction treatment programs using marijuana tax revenues.
Some states adopted new measures for criminal justice reform. Others made changes to state election laws through redistricting and using ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to select several candidates in order of preference.
Not many years ago, it would have been surprising to see so many significant legal changes passing through state and local ballot measures. But the continued gridlock and polarized partisanship at the national level has made nationwide change a slow or impossible task. These state and local ballot measures are truly indicative of the growing discontent with current legal norms and the ever-increasing momentum for change.
Legal Changes Post-Pandemic?
With the sudden panic of uncertainty in our daily lives that COVID-19 brought, state governments needed to implement emergency directives quickly.
North Carolina established relief programs such as financial assistance for mortgage payments, additional tax credits for families with qualifying children who have had childcare costs, and arrangements for free meals that children received in person at schools before the pandemic hit. These policies are temporary, but they’ve resulted in changes in the state’s spending and might eventually lead to permanent changes in the state’s budget.
Permanent policy changes will be necessary here and elsewhere now that major gaps in the system have been made apparent. For instance, the lasting impact of the pandemic on small businesses will require much more than the previous stimulus act. Though the stimulus package included small business loans, it wasn’t as effective as intended.
There have been ongoing state, local and national legislative discussions on policy and legal changes to boost businesses, aid schools, continue judicial suspensions of evictions, and help individuals and communities adjust to changes brought by the pandemic. No doubt these will need to continue well into 2021.
Many changes were thrust upon us this year, some far more welcome than others. If there is one major takeaway from the legal changes in 2020, it’s that change can be made from an individual level and does not need to start from the highest levels of government. That’s a valuable lesson for everyone to remember.
Sara Shariff is an attorney with Hull and Chandler in Charlotte who practices business law and estate planning law. Her fields of expertise include business formation, contracts, corporate transitions and mergers and acquisitions.
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