Supreme Court hears arguments on military funeral protests

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Wednesday in the highly controversial case of Snyder v. Phelps [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report] on protests at military funerals. Reverend Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church [WARNING: readers may find material at this church website offensive; JURIST news archive] have been traveling around the country picketing military funerals in recent years, claiming US soldiers have been killed because America tolerates homosexuals. The suit was brought [JURIST report] by the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder after Phelps and members of his church picketed his funeral. A federal judge awarded the family [JURIST report] almost $11 million in damages, but the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding [opinion, PDF] that Phelps' speech was protected under the First Amendment [text]. Counsel for the petitioner, Albert Snyder, opened his argument by stating:

We are talking about a funeral. If context is ever going to matter, it has to matter in the context of a funeral. Mr. Snyder simply wanted to bury his son in a private, dignified manner. When the Respondent's behavior made that impossible, Mr. Snyder was entitled to turn to the tort law of the State of Maryland.
Counsel for the church argued that, because Snyder had turned his son's funeral into a public event, the church's actions were protected because they were speaking on a matter of public concern.

In Connick v. Thompson [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court heard arguments on whether imposing failure-to-train liability on a district attorney's office for a single Brady violation contravenes the rigorous culpability and causation standards or undermines prosecutors' absolute immunity. Prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence in violation of defendant John Thompson's rights under Brady v. Maryland [opinion text]. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana entered a judgment [text, PDF] in favor of Thompson, and the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the motion for a new trial. Counsel for the petitioners argued that the district court misapplied the Supreme Court's rule, ignoring the "distinction between a single incident and pattern liability." Counsel for Thompson argued that court should not "write into section 1983 a per se rule that the only way ... a civil rights victim can ever establish the deliberate indifference of a district attorney is if he can prove a prior significant history of assistant prosecutors violating other citizens' constitutional rights."

 

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