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Campaign scandal, Supreme Court rulings top 2014 legal stories

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The Supreme Court ruled that closely held companies with religious objections don't have to pay contraceptive coverage in health care plans for its employees. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A campaign finance scandal, a contentious district attorney race and some controversial Supreme Court rulings were among the most talked about stories in the legal community for the first half of 2014.

Campaign finance scandal
In January, a Washington D.C.-based campaign consultant was charged with conspiring to help a foreign national illegally finance several political campaigns in San Diego in 2012 and 2013, including the mayoral election.

The central figure in the scandal, Mexican citizen Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, has been accused of funneling more than $500,000 through various channels to several local campaigns, including 2012 mayoral candidates Bob Filner and Bonnie Dumanis and congressional candidate Juan Vargas.

Foreign nationals are prohibited by federal law from contributing to U.S. elections. The investigation is ongoing.

Challenge in district attorney election
The year also featured the first race for San Diego County district attorney since 2002. Dumanis, who hadn't faced an opponent for district attorney since taking office 12 years ago, got a spirited challenge from private attorney Bob Brewer, a Vietnam veteran and former prosecutor.

Brewer raised several questions about Dumanis, including her motivations behind a 2008 case involving a member of the Chula Vista city council. Brewer said Dumanis launched an investigation of the city council after then-Chula Vista mayor Steve Padilla declined to consider one of her aides for a vacant city council position.

Dumanis also was accused, on the eve of the election, of writing a college letter of recommendation for the son of the man at the center of the campaign finance scandal, indicating she had a closer relationship with Azano than previously stated.

Dumanis denied the allegations and later easily earned her fourth term in office with a resounding victory in the June primary.

Controversial decisions from the high court
The U.S. Supreme Court issued several noteworthy decisions this term, including a few that affect San Diego businesses and have local interests.

In a pair of patent cases, the high court ruled that naturally occurring products and laws of nature are not patent-eligible. The rulings in The Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics and Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. shook the patent world as no one is sure of the practical effects of the rulings.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is working on new guidelines to incorporate the outcome of the rulings.

Also, in its highly anticipated Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held companies with religious objections don't have to pay contraceptive coverage for its employees.

Additionally, the Supreme Court took on a case that originated in San Diego, which centered on the question of whether the police need a warrant to search a suspect's cellphone after an arrest. In Riley v. California, the justices said yes. “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his unanimous opinion.

A landmark decision made by the Supreme Court declared that cellphones cannot be searched by law enforcement without a warrant. Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

In the case, police searched San Diego college student David Riley's smartphone after stopping him for expired license plate tags. Officers found photographs linking him to a shooting, and Riley was later convicted of three charges.

The justices also made news this year for what they didn't do. They declined to review the latest decision in the ongoing Mount Soledad cross case, preferring to let the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hear it first. The high court could still weigh in on the dispute, but it won't be for a couple more years now.

State courts receive funding

California's trial courts, meanwhile, received some good news this spring as Gov. Jerry Brown proposed increasing their funding augmentation from $100 million to $160 million in his revised state budget. The proposed increase is part of a two-year strategy to stabilize trial court funding.

Approximately $1.2 billion in court funding has been cut since 2007.

-Compiled by Doug Sherwin, The Daily Transcript.

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