When the Supreme Court renders its decision in Snyder v. Phelps, central Pennsylvania attorney Sean E. Summers imagines that he will hear about it by a reporter’s phone call—the same way he learned that the Court had granted certiorari on the case.
“I told my client ‘This is a hail Mary’ and not to expect certiorari from the Court,” said Summers yesterday, explaining that he was not expecting much when he appealed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the case. Much to his surprise, the Court granted certiorari and kicked the case into high gear.
Summers has represented the family of the late Lt. Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder
, a U.S. Marine who was killed in Al Anbar Province in 2006. His family filed a federal lawsuit alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed Snyder’s funeral. A federal jury initially awarded a multi-million dollar verdict in favor of the Snyder family in 2009; the Fourth Circuit reversed the jury verdict and awarded litigation costs to the Phelps family.
Summers laid out the questions presented to the court and his client’s position and outlined the realities of trying a case before the Supreme Court for the first time. He also detailed efforts to get as many state solicitors general on board with a single amicus brief; in the end, 48 states plus the District of Columbia signed a single amicus brief.
“This wasn’t about just words. It was about disrupting the funeral,” Summers said, explaining how the priest who handled Snyder’s funeral was required to deal with complicated logistics, shielding nearby schoolchildren from the signs the Phelps family brought to the funeral, and handling staffing issues—all when he would have preferred to focus on the needs of the Snyder family.
Summers concluded his presentation with a slide of Matthew Snyder in his full dress uniform. He explained that Matthew Snyder and other soldiers who sacrifice their lives motivate him and his colleagues at Barley Snyder
to work on the case entirely pro bono. (The Snyder family is of no relation to anyone in the law firm.) To date the law firm has donated more than three-quarters of a million dollars in legal work on the case.
Law student Amanda Eshenour '12 said, "In law school we learn that sometimes there are no easy answers, and this is one of those cases. I have a better understanding of First Amendment law and of the tensions that exist when you try to balance various rights, as we do in the U.S." Eshenour is a co-justice of the Burr Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta
, which sponsored Summers' visit.