In the legal community, as the New Year approaches we look back on a a run of interesting news in 2016. From the death key justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to remarkable moves in key court cases, the law played a pivotal role. In my view, any list of vital events in the courts for the last year has to include the following:

February 13, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia Dies at 79

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia and its impact on the Supreme Court

  • The court reached a 5-3 decision in favor of abortion rights. The replacement of Justice Scalia will not affect that holding but subsequent replacements almost assuredly would change things.

June 23, 2016

Obama Immigration Plan Rejected

The Supreme Court case intensified the aggressive election-year debate over the U.S. immigration policy

  • A 4-4 split doomed the executive action for immigration reform and the future outlook for immigration advocates is obviously very challenging.

July 5, 2016

FBI recommends no charges against Clinton in email probe

The Email Investigation of Hilary Clinton and its aftermath were among many headlines in 2016’s heated presidential election. FBI Director James Comey announced the FBI would not recommend the Justice Department to bring charges against Clinton. Just weeks before the Republican and Democratic Convention, this announcement caused much disarray for both parties.

July 27, 2016

Freddie Gray case ends with no convictions against officers

  • Three of the six officers charged for the death of Freddie Gray were acquitted, and all charges were dropped against the remaining three.

November 16, 2016

Judge Rejects Bill Cosby’s Bid to Dismiss Criminal Sexual Assault Case

Cosby’s motion to dismiss charges was rejected. Meanwhile, he filed civil suits against other accusers. Predictably, while he is attempting every possible legal maneuver, he faces challenges ahead due to the large number of accusers.

December 5, 2016

Mistrial Declared for Walter Scott’s shooter

  • The officer charged with murder had a mistrial when a single juror out of 12 held out against conviction. This case will be tried again and meanwhile; federal criminal charges are also pending.

December 15, 2016

Jury Finds Dylann Roof Guilty In S.C. Church Shooting

  • Dylann Roof was convicted of all counts in Federal Court for the June 18, 2016 Charleston Church shooting. The death penalty phase is next as Roof has asked to represent himself in the penalty phase of the trial scheduled to begin January 3, 2017.

Families of Orlando Victims Sue Twitter, Facebook and Google

Three families of June’s Orlando victims are suing Twitter, Facebook and Google, claiming the social media sites for allegedly providing “material support” to Omar Mateen. First reported by Fox News Monday, the federal civil suit will be focusing on the interpretation of a provision in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 called Section 230.

This is the most recent lawsuit targeting social media services for making it easy for the Islamic State to spread its message. Earlier this month, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter said they would share a database of terror images and videos to more quickly remove terrorism content.

“Without Defendants Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the lawsuit states.

This lawsuit underscores the  substantial logistical issues presented when a search engine is allegedly required to detect dangerous and illegal content across social media.

Can lines be drawn between free speech, and illegally inciting crimes of terrorism? It can indeed be a crime to induce someone to commit a crime – so it will be fascinating to explore whether courts will stand back, or try to develop a framework for distinguishing between criminal activity and protected free speech in this dramatic context.


Kendall Coffey is a former U.S. Attorney who has authored several books and more than thirty articles on legal subjects. He also appears as a guest legal analyst on national television networks.

While the Cuban embargo seems profoundly distant from punitive measures imposed against Russia, there are parallels. The topic “Russia’s Pivot to Asia”, during the American Bar Association’s recent conference in Moscow, suggested that, at least in the short term, sanctions are more likely to produce a change in partners rather than a change in policies. It seems evident that, just as the Castro brothers never left Cuba, Russia is not withdrawing from Crimea. With the election of Donald Trump as the next President and perhaps a new perspective toward Russia, it’s time to examine not only the success of sanctions in securing their intended effect, but also some of the unintended consequences.

The chronic futility of economic sanctions is not a modern phenomenon. While ancient Athens may have invented failed embargos some 2,400 years ago, the first U.S. sanctions, the Embargo of 1807, also backfired. Trying to steer a middle course between war and subservience, President Thomas Jefferson’s sanctions policy had a disastrous impact on American exports to Europe instead of preventing British naval harassment. In the 1980’s, the treatise, “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered,” found a thirty-three percent success rate while the Peterson Institute of International Economics estimated sanctions succeed in seventeen percent of cases.

Just as the 1935 League of Nations’ sanctions failed to deter Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, the United Nations’ economic measures decades later against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were also largely ignored. Today, North Korea’s Kim Jon II is still intransigent and menacing after all these years.

Even when effective, sanctions are not overnight successes. It took almost twenty years for Myranmar to improve human rights enough to secure the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the jury is still out on whether recent accords with Iran proved the value of decades of trade restrictions.

Cuba proves that even decades of embargos may not succeed. Russian sanctions – leveled against major banks, energy companies and President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in 2014 and later against companies building a multi-billion dollar bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea – have changed nothing and in some ways seem more ineffectual each year.

One thing is for certain: failed sanctions often have unintended consequences. The Cuba Embargo directed the rogue nation’s tourist industry to focus on Europe, from where many come to enjoy the legendary beauty of Cuba’s beaches. Russia, with its immense size and resources, is even more difficult to isolate effectively. China is fast becoming Russia’s main trading partner, as illustrated by a recent four hundred billion dollar gas deal that will flow through a Siberian pipeline. Russia is also working with India to construct up to a dozen power plants in that country. Russia may even cede two small disputed islands to Japan to secure billions of dollars for energy projects in Russia’s far east.

While expanding ties to Asia, Russia has responded to the West by banning most commodities from the U.S. and European Union and suspending a treaty with the United States for cleaning up weapons grade plutonium. The upshot appears to be that Russia will continue to find trading partners for its oil, gas and other commodities and buyers like China and India may get better deals for energy and gain competitive advantages as a result.

The uneven economic results are not the only side effect of sanctions. For decades, Cuba’s Castro has railed against the U.S. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed in 2014, “…the embargo is Castro’s best friend” giving him “an excuse for everything.” As with Castro, sanctions could provide Russian elected officials with a domestic rationale for economic adversities. Whenever it is convenient, they might seek to blame American and European sanctions rather than the huge drop in the price of oil, a commodity which accounts for fifty percent of the government’s income. And it may work, judging from Putin’s sky high approval ratings.

While sanctions have historically produced few success stories and varying side effects, they serve a broader purpose by providing an alternative to armed conflict. However ineffectual and expensive economic sanctions may often be, they are infinitely less costly than war. But they nonetheless have significant costs. There will be fascinating moments when Presidents Trump and Putin meet next year and the intended goals of sanctions as well as their unintended consequences will almost assuredly be on that agenda.