Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BYU Law alumna recounts Supreme Court case

Last month we mentioned the Supreme Court's holding in Pleasant Grove, Utah v. Summum , in which a unanimous Court held that a 10 Commandments Monument in a public park was government speech. On the same day we talked about the case Tina Petersen, the city attorney for Pleasant Grove, spoke to a group of BYU Law School students about the case. Petersen, a 1995 BYU Law alumna, discussed her thought process when she first learned of the lawsuit in 2003:


When Peterson first became aware of the case, she began her research by asking herself and the city council an important question.

“Did we establish the monument for a religious purpose—to promote a certain religion?”

The answer, she found, was that they had not.

Then, Peterson began asking other important questions. “Do we move the monument? Do we keep it there? What are the financial ramifications for the city to defend the lawsuit at this time?”

I think it's interesting to hear from a Supreme Court litigant about the infancy of the case. The strategic and practical considerations faced by a small city government are also important; money and workload demands prevent quite a few cases from being litigated or appealed. Eventually the City of Pleasant Grove was joined by dozens of large and powerful amici, but there was no guarantee of any outside support.

Ms. Petersen's remarks also underscore a frightening but fantastic reality for young attorneys -- you can be a part of enormously important cases, transactions, or legislation. Young lawyers in government service or public interest organizations may not make the big bucks, but they often get the big cases. That's how an attorney just a few years out of law school working in a small city can end up working on a Supreme Court case.