A Defender Special

These are the stories that captured our interests all year long.

The biggest national stories of 2022 were all about living our new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, politics and pervasive anxiety over the climate and economy. From learning to live with COVID-19 to a politically-divided country, 2022 was full of big stories. Here are the top national stories.

COVID is still here

COVID-19 has been upending daily life in the United States for almost three years as SARS-CoV-2, the virus spreading the disease, causing surges in infections across the country. In some ways, the virus is under better control since the first cases were identified in January 2020. But COVID-19 is still a threat—no one can predict when a new strain might surface, and many questions remain. In late 2022, cases began to rise again with the Omicron subvariants driving infections. The number of people who have died from the disease in the U.S. passed one million in 2022. By late August of this year, the number of people who have been infected with the virus here had surpassed 98 million. COVID vaccines prevented an estimated 3.2 million deaths and 18.5 million hospitalizations from their introduction in December 2020 to November 30, 2022.

Ketanji Brown Jackson receives historic Supreme Court appointment

Of the 115 justices who’ve served on the US Supreme Court bench prior to Ketanji Brown Jackson, 108 have been white men. Her historic appointment to replace Associate Justice Stephen Breyer followed an explosive and sometimes emotional confirmation hearing. Jackson was grilled on her record on crime, especially her sentencing in child pornography cases (Senate Republicans said she was too lenient, though experts said she was in line with norms) and divisive issues such as race, gender identity and abortion. Ultimately, three Republicans—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney—joined the full Democratic caucus to confirm Jackson, 53-47, maintaining a 6-3 conservative majority. Jackson, a mother of two girls, said during her hearing that she got “so many notes and letters and photos from little girls” who were happy to see someone who looked like them ascend to the highest court in the land.

Roe v. Wade overturned

On Friday, June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark piece of legislation that made access to an abortion a federal right in the United States. Lawmakers and reproductive rights advocates say the ban will disproportionately affect women of color, particularly Black women, who already face higher risks of health complications or death related to pregnancy or childbirth. The decision dismantled 50 years of legal protection and paved the way for individual states to curtail or outright ban abortion rights. Because of trigger laws put in place before the ruling, abortion was immediately outlawed in many states automatically or through state action following the decision. In addition, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that certain other landmark rulings should be reconsidered, including established rights to contraception access, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage.

Student loan relief

After months of intense debate, President Joe Biden announced his plans for forgiving student debt for borrowers, which included forgiving $10,000 for borrowers who make less than $125,000 per year and extending the payment freeze until the end of the year. Borrowers who had Pell Grants while in college received $20,000 in student loan forgiveness. Many were happy about the campaign promises to address student debt, but others criticized the fact that it fell short of the $50,000 debt relief that several of Biden’s fellow Democrats were pushing for. The administration has canceled nearly $32 billion in outstanding federal student debt by expanding existing forgiveness programs for disabled borrowers, public sector workers and students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. Lawsuits filed by the right, led to court rulings that paused the relief. And as the year came to a close, anxious borrowers were waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court.

Murder across America

A white gunman massacred 10 Black shoppers and workers at a Buffalo supermarket in May and pleaded guilty to murder and hate-motivated terrorism charges, guaranteeing he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Payton Gendron, 19, entered the plea in a courthouse roughly two miles from the grocery store where he used a semiautomatic rifle and body armor to carry out a racist assault he hoped would help preserve white power in the U.S. In Virginia, three Black football players from the University of Virginia were shot and killed as they returned to campus from a field trip, setting off panic and a 12-hour lockdown at the school until the suspect was captured. Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., 22, was arrested. Police still don’t have a motive in the shooting. All across America, guns continued to be in high debate as the number of gun-violence crimes soared.

What happened to Shanquella Robinson?

The case of a young woman killed while vacationing with friends garnered attention nationwide. Police said Shanquella Robinson was alive when medical help first arrived at the villa where she was staying with a group of people in Cabo, Mexico. After investigation, authorities discovered a doctor from a local hospital was with Robinson and others in the house for close to three hours before she was pronounced dead. The death certificate from Mexican authorities did not mention Robinson’s physical injuries, which family members have said existed on her body prior to her burial. Grave injuries to her back and neck were determined to be the cause of death after an autopsy by officials in Mexico. The police report says she also suffered cardiac arrest. Since her death, and after a video of one of her friends fighting her went viral, the FBI and Mexican police authorities launched investigations into how she died. The lack of conclusive evidence and conflicting explanations has led to her story going viral, invoking global outcry with countless people closely following Robinson’s death. The hashtag #JusticeForShanquella trended on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. No arrests have been made so far.

Hakeem Jeffries takes the reins

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives elected New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as their party leader. The congressman, who once quoted the late Notorious B.I.G. during one of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings and has maintained a vow to oppose Republican extremism, becomes the first Black American to lead a major political party in Congress. Jeffries said he hopes to find common ground with the GOP where possible. He takes over the reins from long-time Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The 52-year-old leads a changing of the guard for Democrats, a party long headed by its most senior members, including Pelosi, 82, and South Carolina’s James Clyburn.

Karen Bass becomes mayor of Los Angeles

Rep. Karen Bass became the first woman elected mayor of Los Angeles, defeating billionaire developer Rick Caruso who waged the most expensive campaign in the city’s history. The six-term congresswoman and former state lawmaker overcame Caruso’s 10-to-1 spending advantage to win a close contest between two Democrats. She will lead a city simmering with anger over homelessness and the rising cost of living as well as recent displays of corruption and racism at City Hall.

Jan. 6 committee

After months of investigation, the Jan. 6 committee issued criminal referrals for former President Donald Trump to the Justice Department. Otherwise, lawmakers would have undercut their own votes to impeach Trump for incitement of insurrection in January 2021, one week before he left office. In the article adopted then on a 232-197 vote, the House found that “Donald John Trump engaged in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” Additionally, the article made the specific allegation that Trump obstructed government proceedings, namely the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. The implicit mission of the Jan. 6 committee was to find and publicize evidence that supported claims that Trump acted illegally in his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and remain in power. The lawmakers argued that they found that evidence and it requires the Justice Department to act.

Racism seen as root of water crisis in Mississippi capital

The U.S. Justice Department won a federal judge’s approval to carry out a rare intervention to improve the precarious water system in Mississippi’s capital city. The move authorized the appointment of a third-party manager to oversee reforms to Jackson’s water system, which nearly collapsed in late summer and continues to struggle. For days in August, people waited in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets in Mississippi’s capital as some businesses were temporarily forced to close for lack of potable water. The partial failure of the water system that month followed flooding on the nearby Pearl River, which exacerbated longstanding problems in one of Jackson’s two water-treatment plants.