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Snyder will fight Westboro on court costs, lawyer says

WASHINGTON — The father of a Marine killed in Iraq won’t pay the nearly $100,000 in court costs charged by Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed his son’s 2006 funeral, in the wake of his unsuccessful lawsuit against the group, his lawyer said.

“We’re not just going to write them a check,” Sean Summers, lawyer for Albert Snyder, said Friday. “We’re going to make them work for it.”

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 last week that the anti-gay protests were protected speech under the First Amendment. The decision upheld the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision overturning Snyder’s verdict against the anti-gay church’s founder, Fred Phelps.

Snyder’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was not gay, but the church pickets military funerals nationwide because they say soldiers’ deaths are God’s vengeance for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.

A lower court awarded Albert Snyder $5 million in damages for emotional distress. However, at the Supreme Court, all the justices except Samuel Alito sided with Westboro, which means Snyder may be on the hook for the church’s court costs.

Westboro member and lead lawyer Margie Phelps called it “a beautiful, poetic thing.”

“He intended to shut us down and he announced that far and wide,” she said. “And the Pentagon backed him up on it. That was their plan. And now they’re going to finance some of [the funeral picketing], that’s how they see it.”

The 4th Circuit has already ordered Snyder to pay Westboro $16,510.80. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly has offered to pick up that cost. Phelps said she would be willing to “barter” with O’Reilly for airtime on his show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” instead.

Fox News responded by saying that O’Reilly’s offer to Snyder still stands, but he won’t trade airtime on his show.

The church has another request pending in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where the Snyder case began, for a total of $96,740.21, which court documents say “includes and encompasses” the earlier award.

The $96,740.21 request was filed May 6, 2010. Judge Richard D. Bennett has not ruled on it yet. Phelps said if Bennett tries to “sit on it” she will go back to the appeals court and force him to rule on it.

“He’s a Reserve major (in the U.S. Army),” she said. “It doesn’t take rocket surgery [sic] to figure out why he’s hostile.”

Requests for reimbursement of legal fees are not unusual, but this one has been contentious. Summers and his partner Craig Trebilcock objected to the $16,510.80 request, writing in court briefs that the Phelpses were only in court because they were “determined to protest the funeral of Appellee’s son in order to publicize themselves.”

They also said Westboro attorneys printed frivolous documents and their 50-cents-per-page rate was unreasonable for in-house printing.

Even if Bennett orders Snyder to pay the $96,740.21, Summers said that won’t be the end of it.

“The judge can order Mr. Snyder to pay $100,000,” he said. “But I’m telling you right now, Mr. Snyder doesn’t have $100,000.”

Snyder’s lawyers are representing him pro bono, and in court documents he has said his salary at a Pennsylvania electric company is “less than $43,000 annually.”

Maxwell Chibundu, a University of Maryland law professor specializing in civil litigation, said if Snyder refused to pay, the Phelpses would have to bring a lawsuit to try to garnish his wages or put a lien on his house.

“You can’t throw someone into jail for not paying the judgment,” Chibundu said. “But if you can find assets belonging to that person, using the laws of the place where the assets happen to be, you can seek to attach and levy on those assets.”

In court documents filed May 6, Westboro members Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis and their Maryland attorney, Jon Katz, argued that Snyder has not proven an inability to pay, which is his burden under the law. They also wrote that “various and sundry people nationwide are raising funds for plaintiff; he is silent on that well-published fact.”

Snyder is accepting donations on his son’s tribute website, matthewsnyder.org, and this week there was a new posting: “Al Snyder Needs Your Help — Please Consider Donating.” The posting mentions Westboro’s bill and says, “This fight is not yet over” and, “All funds donated will go to cover the costs associated with this case and to support other legal efforts to curtail protests at military funerals.”

In response to the Phelpses’ protests, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., announced Tuesday that he will introduce a bill to bar picketers from coming within 2,500 feet of a military funeral or from picketing within five hours of the start or end of the funeral. Snyder thanked Ruppersberger for the bill, the “Safe Haven for Heroes Act.”

Westboro has challenged similar laws in court and Phelps said last week the church would redouble its efforts to overturn restrictions on picketing at funerals given the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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