The news over the past few days offered distressing images of the harassment that the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was subjected to when they buried the young soldier in 2006. As most Americans know by now, the Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas and members of their fundamentalist church carried signs and called out epithets with the message that God is punishing America and its troops because of the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The signs included, “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices) and other generalized protest signs plus “personal, targeted epithets directed at the Snyder family.” Additionally, the Phelps posted messages on their website that accuse the Marine’s father of having raised his son “to defy the creator” and “serve the devil.”
It’s hard to imagine many folks who aren’t disgusted by this behavior and the crass effort to exploit the grief of mourning parents to garner attention for the Phelps family’s hateful message. And yet, there are constitutional issues that impose serious hurdles to allowing monetary damages to the Snyder family for emotional distress they suffered. The trial court ruling that awarded them $11 million was overturned by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds (hence the appeal to the Supreme Court).
The Los Angeles Times reported on yesterday’s Supreme Court debate and offered a brief glimpse into the marvel of our divided government and its unmatched system of a truly independent, respected and obeyed judiciary. The Times quoted from a dialogue between Justice Stephen Breyer and Margie Phelps—the daughter of the offending minister and also his counsel. Justice Breyer unabashedly stated that, “What I’m trying to accomplish is to allow this tort to exist [the Marine’s family right to sue for emotional distress], but not allow it to interfere with an important public message.”
The entire Court discussion is a fascinating example of our government at its very best—- civil, intellectual and honest debate of weighty issues with forthright give and take. The discussion is almost dramatic because of the obvious commitment of the justices to principles that constrain what they would “like to accomplish.”
The debate is a reminder of how complex issues of this type are and how vapid most of the political debate is that occurs (especially in an election year) around equally difficult issues in our society. Complex issues get reduced to slogans and simple black and white characterizations, the nuance and thoughtfulness that the Supreme Court argument demonstrated rarely appears in Congressional debates, to say nothing of the charades that pass for discussion on the local level.
I suspect this is not an infrequent occurrence at the Supreme Court, but I also imagine that the contrast between the visceral response of what most people would like to have happen and the constraints of the Constitution is rarely so stark. It is impressive to witness the justices’ anguish in grappling with their desire to do justice and their obligation to adhere to principles that may conflict with that intent.
It’s a striking reminder of the vitality and intellectual richness of the Supreme Court and the quality of its deliberations—-especially as contrasted with so much that passes for “discourse” in our political bodies.
Take a look at the record, it’s worth it.