· More news, including the full amicus briefs, here.


Individuals and groups submit briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of other people's cases for all kinds of reasons.

Sometimes they have a valid constitutional point when they file what's called an amicus brief, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who was a clerk for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Sometimes, they want greater name recognition. Sometimes, groups just want members to see how active they are.

"It's amicus brief as self-expression," Volokh said.

Five groups submitted briefs to the Court before last week's deadline in support of Albert Snyder, who is asking the court to overturn a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling and restore a jury's verdict that the Westboro Baptist Church invaded his privacy and intentionally harmed him emotionally when it staged a protest outside the military funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder at a church in Westminster, Md. in 2006.

Traditionally, the justices will wait until they receive briefs from both parties -- the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family do not have to file their brief until June 23 -- and then assign them to clerks, Volokh said. The clerks, highly skilled lawyers, will then read them all and write memos for their justice. The justices will read the briefs themselves sometime before oral arguments, which for Snyder are expected to take place in October.


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The briefs submitted by the parties are the most important, Volokh said, but justices will pay attention to an amicus presenting a unique argument.

Here's who's backing Snyder:

American Legion

Interest in the case: Since it was chartered by Congress in 1919, the group has honored fallen service members. It feels the Fourth Circuit's decision will make that more difficult.

Summary of argument: The Fourth Circuit was wrong to rule that the Phelpses' speech was protected by the First Amendment "simply because it constituted an opinion."

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that opinions could be regulated, the Legion argued, as long as the government has strong enough interests and the regulations are appropriately tailored. That contrasts with the Fourth Circuit's ruling.

"If speech is protected merely because it constitutes opinion ...democratically enacted picketing statues of virtually every state and the federal government are necessarily unconstitutional," the Legion wrote.

Attorneys General of 48 states, and the District of Columbia

Interest in the case: For more than 100 years, states have allowed people to sue for inflicting emotional harm on families of the deceased. They're concerned the Fourth Circuit's ruling could make those laws impossible to enforce.

Summary of argument: The First Amendment generally does not restrict civil law suits. The Fourth Circuit based part of its judgment on a defamation case involving a public figure suing a media defendant, the states argued. Since this is not a defamation case, and there are no public figures or media defendants involved, the Fourth Circuit erred.

Also, the states said, the Phelpses' signs were not a matter of public concern.

"A war is a matter of public concern, but that does not give the Phelpses license to attack personally every soldier and every soldier's family, any more than publicized troubles of the Catholic Church give the Phelpses a license to target and personally attack any private citizen who happens to be Catholic," the states said.

Finally, they said: "Condemning the Phelpses' conduct here will not open the door to wide-ranging tort liability, because no one else in the history of this country has utilized their tactics ... no traditional, necessary or even marginally valuable method of protest will be lost by holding the Phelpses accountable for their emotional terrorism."

Another view: The attorneys general for Maine and Virginia declined to join their counterparts.

In a statement, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said, "This is not a political question, a test of patriotism or a popularity contest about how many people take offense at a particular statement. Once we start carving out exceptions to the First Amendment for speech that is unpopular or offensive, then we start down a slippery slope that endangers the right of all of us to hold and express views that may be thought unpopular by others."

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement he did not join because "the case could set a precedent that could severely curtail certain valid exercises of free speech. If protestors -- whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental -- said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt damaged, the protestors could be sued. It then becomes a very subjective and difficult determination as to when the line is crossed from severely offensive speech to that which inflicts emotional distress."

Volokh also said that the First Amendment has factored into civil cases more than the 49 attorneys general claim. Under the states' argument, he said, "institutional press" speakers would receive greater protection under the First Amendment than ordinary citizens, which should not be.

John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Interest in the case: Both schools have "extensive experience working with veterans, servicemembers and their families" and "have an interest in presenting to the Court the history of military funerals and the psychological importance of these funerals for the families of servicemembers killed in action."

Summary of argument: Research shows that the families of those killed at war go through a more complex grieving process than what is considered normal. Additional trauma further complicates this process for the family.

Even beyond that research, there has been an understanding going back to the ancient Greeks that fallen soldiers should receive special honor at their burial so as to tell the final story of their lives. That's why, since the Civil War, the U.S. has offered the families of those killed at war the option of a military funeral.

By admission of the Phelpses' own expert, the VLSC argued, the Westboro protest damaged Snyder's grieving process.

"Objectionable and offensive conduct intentionally directed at this captive audience at such a significant stage in the grieving process causes injury actionable under the law," they argued.

Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

Interest in the case: With more than 1.6 million members, the federally-chartered organization maintains as a fundamental purpose "to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead, and to assist their widows and orphans."

Summary of argument: Mourners at a funeral are a captive audience, and the Fourth Circuit erred by granting the Phelpses unconditional First Amendment protection for their actions outside the funeral.

"(The Phelpses') speech is of little, if any value. Conversely, the harm they inflicted upon a grieving family and the memory and service of a member of our Armed Forces is substantial and irreparable."

42 U.S. Senators

Interest in the case: Members of Congress are "entrusted by the American people to support the military service members charged with the defense of our nation and to ensure that those slain in service are lain to rest with dignity, solemnity and respect."

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, led the report, which 40 other senators, including both of Pennsylvania's, joined in.

Summary of argument: The Fourth Circuit applied the wrong legal standard when overturning the jury verdict.

The jury found the Phelpses liable for three laws, called torts: Intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy. Yet, the senators argue, the Fourth Circuit decided its case on the much broader standard used for defamation claims against a public figure.

If the Fourth Circuit used the correct standard, the senators said, it would have found the Phelpses did not have the right to protest directly outside Snyder's funeral.

"The IIED and intrusion upon seclusion torts narrowly protect against willful efforts to invade a private grieving ceremony and to inflict harms on those involved," they argued.

Phelps: Pols know they're wrong Westboro has until June 23 to file its brief to the Supreme Court.

Margie Phelps -- daughter of the Rev. Fred Phelps, member of the Westboro Baptist Church -- read the briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Albert Snyder and had one response:

"It's the ultimate constitutional question," Phelps said. "Are you really willing to destroy your own republic for your sin?"

The senators, governors and attorneys general siding with the Spring Garden Township man know the constitution supports Westboro's right to protest, Phelps said. That the politicians are willing to ignore the law because they don't like what the Phelpses are saying only proves how corrupt they are.

"They demean the law, they demean the facts, and worse, they demean their oath, and worst of all, they demean their constituents by supporting mob rule," Phelps said. "They get their hopes up that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Snyder, which it won't. There's just too much settled law."

The Phelpses have until June 23 to file their brief with the court, explaining why the Fourth Circuit's decision should stand. Groups and individuals have until June 30 to file briefs supporting them.

Two organizations -- the American Civil Liberties Union and Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression -- have said they will write in support of Westboro, Phelps said. Others might still join.

--JEFF FRANTZ