Power of law, cadet style

Major Chris Morgan lays the groundwork for a hearing on the case of Snyder v. Phelps at the Academy’s Law Day on Monday. (Photo by Ray McCoy)

Major Chris Morgan lays the groundwork for a hearing on the case of Snyder v. Phelps at the Academy’s Law Day on Monday. (Photo by Ray McCoy)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Co. -- Dozens of Academy cadets on Monday witnessed firsthand the application of the Constitution they will soon swear to protect and defend.

The Academy once again this year took part in Law Day, an annual nationwide ritual that dates to the Eisenhower administration.

Actively promoted by the American Bar Association, Law Day is intended to draw attention to the importance of attorneys and the rule of law to the American Experiment.

The theme this year was "The Legacy of John Adams: From Boston to Guantanamo." It highlighted cases over the past two centuries that generated public controversy and subjected unpopular people or causes to the legal process.

For the Academy, a recent Supreme Court case met those criteria and was tailor-made for argument at a military installation.

Snyder v. Phelps involved the grieving father of a young Marine killed in Iraq and the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas group known for picketing military funerals. A handout distributed at the Academy's Law Day framed the issue this way: "Does an individual's interest in suing to recover for the disruption of a family member's funeral outweigh the disrupter's First Amendment right to freedom of speech?"

Arguing the case of the Phelpses from Westboro Baptist was Cadet 2nd Class Paulo Dutra. Opposing him on behalf of the family of Lance Cpl. Mathew Snyder was Cadet 2nd Class Zachary Crippen.

Paraphrasing the colorful language of a judge in a previous ruling, Maj. Chris Morgan introduced the case by saying that "sharing a foxhole with scoundrels is no reason to abandon the post."

"We're not re-creating or rehashing the Supreme Court case," Major Morgan said. "We have our own arguments and our own questions."

Then, joining three Academy colleagues filling the role of justices, Major Morgan gave the floor to the cadets. A crowd that all but packed the lecture hall listened as the cadets argued their cases and the justices peppered them with questions.

Unlike in the real Supreme Court case, a major emphasis at the Academy proceedings was put on a poem posted to the Westboro Baptist Church website. Generally referred to as "The Epic of Matthew Snyder," the verses specifically target the deceased Marine and his family.

They state that Snyder's parents were morally deficient in his upbringing because they taught him "to defy his creator" and "raised him for the devil."

Because the Supreme Court case focused more on the protest outside Snyder's funeral in Maryland, the real-life justices ruled in favor of the Phelpses.

They decided that the First Amendment rights of the protesters precluded the Snyder family from collecting damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

But the outcome at the Academy Law Day was much different. Giving considerably more weight to the online epic, the panel unanimously upheld the judgment against Westboro and awarded a legal victory to Snyder's family.

At the close of the proceedings, the cadets considering a legal career were urged to participate in mock trial and follow the lead of cadets Dutra and Krippen, who earned praise for their aplomb in reprising Phelps v. Snyder at the Air Force Academy.