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Court ruling on Marine dad is shameful

By John Ellsworth, Special to CNN
  • Father of a dead Marine was ordered to pay court costs to protesters who picketed funeral
  • John Ellsworth, whose son also died in the Marines, says ruling was unconscionable
  • He says soldiers and families make great sacrifices to protect the nation
  • Ellsworth urges the U.S. Supreme Court to restore justice and dignity to the family

Editor's note: John Ellsworth's son, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth, died in November, 2004, as a result of enemy action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. John Ellsworth is a command sergeant in the Wolverine Lake Police Department in Michigan. His lawsuit with Yahoo! to recover his son's wartime e-mails made headlines in January and February of 2005. He is one of the founding members and chairman of Families United, a nonprofit organization that honors the fallen in war and supports their families.

(CNN) -- The recent ruling of a federal appeals court requiring the family of fallen hero Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder to pay the legal expenses of Fred Phelps and his misguided followers at Westboro Baptist Church is unconscionable.

Like Matthew's father, Albert, I am all too familiar with the hardships associated with losing a son in combat, having lost my son Justin in 2004. It is a tragedy that the thanks given the Snyder family in return for the life of their son is a court order to repay the legal expenses of the hate group that protested at his funeral with signs such as "thank God for dead soldiers."

Beyond simply insulting though, this decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is a slap in the face for every Gold Star family that has lost a loved one in combat. It also represents an egregious misuse of the judicial system; one that sets a dangerous precedent for how the memory of our fallen heroes will be treated. The Supreme Court should immediately move forward with this case and stand up for those who have stood in the face of danger for all Americans.

The legal maneuvers that brought Albert Snyder and his family to this point are enough to make any American shake his or her head in disgust. After Snyder lost his life in 2006, Fred Phelps and his followers showed up at his funeral to spread their message of hate.

Mind you, they didn't know Matthew, and thus had no understanding of the enormous sense of loss his family was feeling; they simply decided that the Snyder family's vulnerability presented an easy platform for their own agenda.

To his credit, Albert Snyder sued the group and won an $11 million judgment against them. However, that award was reduced to $5 million on one appeal and overturned altogether this week by the appeals court.

In fact, not only did the court overturn the original ruling, but it decided to add to the pain and suffering of the Snyder family by imposing more than $16,000 of court fees. Perhaps the judges had forgotten that without the sacrifices of brave soldiers and their families, the American judicial system would have been a long-distant memory.

Beyond the inherent injustice of the court's decision is the message it sends to the thousands of families around the country that have received a tightly wrapped flag and heard the words, "On behalf of a grateful nation ..."

When the Snyder family sued to protect the common decency we should provide to all grieving families, their efforts were met with court orders to pay the legal bills of those who caused their family so much needless pain.

Surely, this is not the kind of thing that Lance Cpl. Snyder or my son, Justin, gave their lives to protect. Has our nation learned nothing from our treatment of returning Vietnam veterans? What would have been the reaction to Fred Phelps and his repugnant actions during World War II? Our veterans and the families of those who didn't return deserve better than this.

Looking ahead, as engagements in Afghanistan draw on and our soldiers answer the call to defend freedom around the world, this case could have a dangerous effect on morale and willingness to serve.

It is time for the Supreme Court to take up this case, not only for families like Albert Snyder but for the families who will bear the ultimate price of freedom in the future. The justices should strike down the ruling of the Virginia court that brushed aside the sacrifice of Lance Cpl. Snyder and restore common sense and basic decency to the way we honor our fallen heroes.

Snyder fought on behalf of all of us, and now his father fights on his behalf. I can only hope that the Supreme Court will restore some measure of justice and dignity to a family so richly deserving of the best the United State has to offer.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Ellsworth.