By Jon Michael Bell
The Law of Wrath
Nowhere was the volatile and abusive nature of Fred Phelps more visible than in the law courts. Six years before the bar, the ill-tempered reverend had already discovered the law was a perfect mattock-handle to punish the world outside his walls. Between 1958 and 1964, Phelps filed 14 lawsuits against his employers, his customers, Leaford Cavin (the Baptist minister who'd given him his new church), the radio station KTOP (Phelps had paid to broadcast for 15 minutes each Sunday morning, but then had his show terminated as too inflammatory), Stauffer Communications, former friends, and public officials. In addition, according to a local attorney who recalls those early days when Fred sold baby carriages and cribs door-to-door, Phelps flooded the equivalent of the small claims courts with requests to garnish the wages of young couples who'd missed their payments-however briefly.
In one case, Fred Phelps vs. Rastus Lewis, which reached the District Court in 1961, Phelps was accused by Lewis and his wife of tricking them with lies: when they thought they were signing a note vouching for the good credit of another couple, they were actually buying a baby-stroller for a baby they didn't have. The Lewises were an uneducated black couple.
Phelps was just entering law school seeking, in his words, "to relieve the oppressed" and to achieve social justice via the courtroom-or what he called "the judicial remedy". There seemed, even then, no limit to the pastor's greed and no grasp of decency in his actions: "I remember we were amazed," one member of the court recalls, "that anyone who hadn't been to law school could be so robustly treacherous." One of those must have been Judge Beryl Johnson, who threw more than one of Fred's cases out of court. And, apparently, the judge would remember the pastor's avarice and utter lack of ethics. To be admitted to the bar, Phelps needed a judge to swear to his good character. The process is usually routine. Not for Fred. No judge was willing to do that. Phelps claims it was the same Beryl Johnson, now deceased, who lobbied the other judges not to sign the young graduate off. Eventually, the pastor was able to gain entry after providing numerous affidavits from other character witnesses.
Phelps is still bitter about that today. He claims 'they' were closing ranks against his Bible message and against his stated intent to use the courtroom to attack social injustice. In a 1983 interview with the Wichita Eagle- Beacon, Fred defined the 'they' who tried to keep him from the bar as "the leading lights of the Jim Crow Topeka community...the presidents of the First National Bank, Merchants National Bank, Capitol Federal Savings and Loan, and the Kansas Power and Light Company..."
The pastor states that, though 'they' tried to stop him, he knew what he had to do: "I was raised in Mississippi. I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated," he says. He also accuses Lou Eisenbarth, a Topeka lawyer, of having led a delegation of attorneys who tried to block Phelps' admission to Washburn Law School.
Eisenbarth just shakes his head in quiet surprise. "Not me." He remembers beating Phelps in one of the pastor's law school civil rights suits, but says there was no delegation to block Phelps going to Washburn. And the judges unanimously refusing to sign off? "If that did happen, it was Phelps' bad temperament and poor judgement that had alarmed community members enough to strenuously object to him practicing the law. It was his litigious and malicious behavior-not fear of any future civil rights work." A few months after Phelps told Capital- Journal reporters, 'I was raised in Mississippi; I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated', the following incident occurred: A black woman, having to walk through the anti-gay pickets outside the courthouse and minding her own business utterly, politely asked Jonathon not to thrust the camera in her face. Pastor Phelps, unaware a member of the press had come up behind him, screamed at the black woman so loud the pavement should have cracked: "YOU FILTHY NIGGER BITCH!" Once inside the bar, within two years, the young esquire provided his elders' fears were not unfounded. As the court-appointed attorney from October to December, 1966, for a man arrested in a forgery case, Phelps received $200 from the defendant's ex-wife to bond the man from jail. Several days later, the ex-wife hired Phelps to handle a divorce she now sought from her current husband. She paid the pastor $50 to do the legal work. The divorce was granted. Phelps kept the $200 for himself, preparing court records to show he had been paid $250 for the divorce. Meanwhile, the lady's ex-husband remained in jail. In the year prior, there had been more unethical conduct. Phelps had been hired to represent another woman seeking a divorce in March, 1965.
Before firing him as her attorney a month later, the woman had paid the pastor $1,000 of the $2,500 fee he was charging her. Phelps had filed an attorney's lien for the balance of the unpaid bill. But a Shawnee County District Court judge had ruled Phelps' services weren't worth more than the $1,000 already paid by the woman, and disallowed the $1,500 lien. So Phelps had filed a lawsuit against the woman in the same court, seeking the $1,500.
The Kansas Supreme Court said that amounted to harassment of his client. It stated Phelps' conduct in the case "demonstrates a lack of professional self-restraint in matters of compensation." Assistant Attorney General Richard Seaton would later observe that Phelps had shown a pattern of conduct illustrating "an uncontrollable appetite for money-especially the money of his client."
The pastor didn't agree. In May, 1966, he filed for the Democratic nomination to the Kansas House, 45th District. "As a Democrat, I am liberal in my thinking," he announced, "but conservative in spending the people's money." Meanwhile, behind the walls of Westboro, the pastor lay up for days in bed, addicted to drugs, beating his wife and helpless toddlers, and sending seven year-olds to fetch his hot apple pie. A potential public servant perhaps-but one straight out of ancient Rome. In l969, Phelps was brought before the State Board of Law Examiners on seven counts of professional misconduct.
Seaton and then Attorney General Kent Frizzell argued that the Westboro minister's conduct as an attorney "is one of total disregard for the duties and the respect and consideration owed by an attorney to his clients. Where money is concerned, the accused simply lacks any sense of balance and proportion. Whatever the reason for this, it appears to me a permanent condition."
Frizzell and Seaton wanted Phelps disbarred. Instead, State Supreme Court Justices chose in 1969 to suspend the pastor for two years. Phelps landed on his feet however: the children's candy sales took up the slack in family income-and then some. But the court's sanction did trouble him. It was on the first anniversary of his suspension that Phelps decided his wife wasn't in proper subjection to him and shaved her long hair down to a bad crewcut. Mrs. Phelps later told the children: "He's just upset; it's been one year today since he was suspended." Nine months after he was released from the penalty box for cheating and exploiting his clients, Phelps had the temerity to place his name on the ballot for District Attorney of Shawnee County.
At the same time, not only had he just been disciplined for his lack of professional ethics, but he was also being sued by three different candy companies, having stiffed them for almost $11,000. To make matters worse, he had also just eluded criminal charges for beating Nate and Jonathon, and danced in front of his children at the news his oldest son's fiancee had committed suicide.
One can only imagine what new turns the pastor's hate would have taken, invested with the power of the D.A.'s office. Because no one else had filed in a race against a popular Republican D.A., Phelps ran unopposed in the August Democratic primary. However, the D.A. was required to have practiced law in the county for five years prior to holding office. As a result of his suspension, Phelps had those years cumulatively but not consecutively. He held he qualified. The State Contest Board held he did not. Phelps appealed first to the District Court, then to the Kansas Supreme Court. He lost. He was disqualified September 28, 1972, leaving the Democrats only five weeks to find another candidate. They lost.
Since then, the pastor has maintained bitter relations with a succession of D.A.s-none of them Fred Phelps. Having stumbled at the start of his public career, Phelps returned to private practice and quickly confirmed his colleagues' fears: the angry reverend's working preference was for largely unfounded lawsuits which the defendants would settle out of court to avoid the nuisance of litigation.
"I was waiting in the Denver airport with him. We were working a civil rights case," remembers Bob Tilton, a former Democratic state chairman and an acquaintance of Phelps. "He told me had to file 20 lawsuits to get one judgement. I said to him, "But what about the other 19 people you sue? It costs them a lot of money and heartache to defend themselves.' He just laughed at me." Phelps sued Kentucky Fried Chicken for $60,000 when a female client claimed she'd discovered a 'bug' in her breadroll; at the same time, he sued a restaurant owned by Harkies Inc. for $30,000 because the same woman claimed to have dined there and found abone in her barbecue. The client admitted she hadn't eaten either the bug or the bone, and that she'd sought no medical treatment, yet she claimed personal damages totaling $10,000 and punitive damages of $80,000.
KFC settled out of court for $600. Harkies likewise for $1,000. In a third case (all three of which were first described in the 1983 expose of Phelps by Steve Tompkins of the Wichita- Eagle Beacon), Fred sued a Denny's restaurant for $110,000. He claimed slander against his client when the man was accused of palming a dollar bill lying beside a register.
The restaurant settled out of court for $750. For the most authentic taste of the law according to Pastor Fred, however, one must turn to Sylvester Smith, Jr. versus Kevin P. Marshall. Excerpts from the opinion of the court, delivered by Judge J. McFarland, tell all: "On May 30, 1975, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car driven by the defendant. The defendant drove his vehicle to the left curb of a one-way street in Topeka, Kansas. Plaintiff exited the vehicle from the passenger side and walked in front of the vehicle. Defendant attempted to put the vehicle in reverse, but instead put it in neutral or drive. The defendant's vehicle moved forward. The plaintiff's lower right leg was caught between defendant's vehicle and a parked automobile. These facts are not in dispute. The residual effect of plaintiff's injury was a discoloration of a small area of skin on his leg."
The discoloration was the size of a quarter, and the plaintiff's skin was black. A chiropractor, called by the plaintiff to testify, made a gallant attempt: "That is a scar right here. If you hold it just right, you can pull it and see a scar."
In effect, Phelps had tied up first the District Court, then the Court of Appeals, and here, the Supreme Court of Kansas over a bruised shin-a quarter-sized scar the pastor insisted constituted a $100,000 disfigurement. To garner the real flavor of civil litigation behind the looking-glass, the lay reader is invited to listen in on the court's discussion of the point at issue: "The record should show that the Court did observe the right leg of Mr. Smith. The parties should also note the Court's observations, the Court did run his finger on the leg in the area that Dr. Counselman described. And the Court's observation, from just a visual and from a touch indication, was that there was no scarring as we understand broken skin with a lesion over the scarring. In other words, it was a smooth feeling.
"That area that the Court did observe was ascertainable, discernible, it being more of a, at least to the visual view of the Court, it was more of a discoloration of Mr. Smith's leg. "The record should show Mr. Smith is black. The area in question was darker. It was more of a dark brown area. It was about an inch and a quarter in length and in the middle point running North and South on the leg toward the center, as Dr. Counselman indicated, and toward the center of the area. It extended to, perhaps, about a half an inch. But I would say it would be East and West across the leg and about an inch and a quarter long. Now that is what the visual observation indicates..." That Phelps could get a bruised shin all the way to the Supreme Court certainly testifies to his persistence. It also reveals the predatory, surreal and parasitic nature of civil litigation in our society.
However, before the reader loses all faith in a fast-fading institution, we hasten to point out that reason did prevail. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the decision of the trial court which had found in favor of the defendant: "Assuming it to be permanent, I cannot believe it is the type of 'disfigurement' intended by the Legislature to support this plaintiff's claim for $100,000 in damages. It seems to me this is a prime example of those 'exaggerated claims for pain and suffering in instances of relatively minor injury' the Court recognized in Manzanares, and just the type of 'minor nuisance' claim the Legislature intended to eliminate." The appellation of 'minor nuisance' may, in the end, sum up the life, law, and ministry of Fred Waldron Phelps.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of the pastor's apparent obsessive need to chisel for chump-change is the $50,000,000 lawsuit filed against Sears and Co. When Mark and Fred, Jr. placed a color television on Christmas layaway in September of 1973, they didn't realize it had been set aside on paper, not actually taken off the shelf and held in the stockroom. When they paid the balance in November, they were told their TV would be ready at Christmas-as they had originally contracted. Three days later, the pastor filed suit in his sons' names and those of 1,000,000 other Sears' layaway customers. "We didn't have anything to do with it," says Mark. It was strictly his idea. In fact, when I left home that year right after Christmas, it put him in a bind. He had a case that was missing a plaintiff."
Court documents show Sears called the Phelpses and told them the television would be available later in November. The two Freds chose not to accept it. Instead, they pressed their suit. Nearly six years of litigation followed. Motions and counter motions were filed. Lawyers argued aspects of the case in front of judges. A judge threw out the class action section of the suit.
Finally, after countless hours of legal work and an original request for $50,000,000, the case was settled in favor of the Phelpses for $126.34. The boys had originally paid $184.59 for the set, but they never received it. These are not the files that will one day inspire a new Earl Stanley Gardner. By 1983, according to the Wichita Eagle- Beacon, there had been "more complaints filed against Phelps, and more formal hearings into his conduct, than any other Kansas attorney since records have been kept." If in fact he did lead the judges' conspiracy to block Fred Phelps from the bar, few would fault old Beryl Johnson today.
In 1976, the reverend-esquired was investigated by the Kansas Attorney General's office. In 73 percent of the pastor's lawsuits, the inquiry discovered the defendants had settled or agreed to settle out of court. In the 57 cases already settled, Phelps had demanded a total of $75,200.00-but then taken an average of only $1,500 per case to walk away. Litigation would have cost his adversaries far more. It was naked extortion, nothing more. Phil Harley, the Assistant Attorney General who led the investigation, now an attorney in San Francisco, confirmed to the Capital-Journal a statement he made to the press 10 years ago: "Based on my experience with him, I reached the personal conclusion that Mr. Phelps used the legal system to coerce settlements and abuse other people." In an opinion filed in a 1979 civil rights case, Federal Judge Richard Rogers-no stranger to the pastor's ways, a significant portion of his docket was taken up by Fred's lawsuits- supported Harley's conclusions: "I feel Mr. Phelps files 'strike suits' of little merit in the expectation of securing settlements by defendants anxious to avoid the inconvenience and expense of litigation." In fact, when those sued by Phelps did not blink, but forced him into court, the angry pastor lost 75 percent of the time-an astonishing record that explodes the myth of the invincible Fred Phelps, a myth which intimidates his community even today.
On November 8, 1977, the state filed a complaint seeking to have Phelps disbarred in its courts. The complaint centered on the pastor's behavior in a lawsuit filed against Carolene Brady, a court reporter in Shawnee County District Court. Phelps sought $2,000 in actual damages and $20,000 punitive damages, alleging Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready when he'd asked for it.
According to court documents, prior to filing the lawsuit, Phelps allegedly told Brady "he had wanted to sue her for a long time". During the trial, the pastor called Brady to the stand, had her declared a hostile witness, and cross-examined her for several days. Phelps not only attacked Brady's competence and honesty, he also attempted to introduce testimony about her sex life.
The Kansas Supreme Court would later observe: "The trial became an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady. His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant." The Supreme Court went on to comment, after the jury had found for Brady and Phelps sought a new trial: "The jury verdict didn't stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady." In asking for a new trial, Phelps prepared affidavits swearing to the court he had new witnesses whose testimony would weigh in dramatically on his side. Brady obtained affidavits from eight of those witnesses, showing they would not testify as the pastor had claimed, that, in fact, Phelps had lied to the court.
The formal complaint against Phelps would not be for harassing Brady, but that he had "clearly misrepresented the truth to the court". Phil Harley, the same Assistant Attorney General who had investigated Phelps in 1976, represented the state in the 1979 disbarment proceedings. Harley wrote:
"When the attorneys engage in conduct such as Phelps has done, they do serious injury to the workings of our judicial system. Even the lay person could see how serious Phelps' infractions are. To allow this type of conduct to go essentially unpunished is being disrespectful to our entire judicial system. It confirms the layman's suspicion that attorneys are 'above the law' and can do anything they please with impunity." Harley continued: "Phelps has now been given two chances to show that he is capable of conducting himself in a manner that is expected of an attorney. On both occasions, he has flagrantly violated the oath he swore to uphold. He should not be given a third opportunity to harm the public or the judicial system. Fred W. Phelps should be disbarred." The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, adding: "The seriousness of the present case, coupled with his previous record, leads this court to the conclusion that respondent has little regard for the ethics of his profession."
The date was July 20, 1979. Even so, the vindictive pastor would have his revenge cold, however small the portion: When Mark Bennett, the attorney chairing the state grievance committee originally recommending Phelps be disbarred died, the aggrieved Fred came to the wake and signed the guestbook. Beside his name, Phelps wrote the numbers of a chapter and verse from the Bible.
When the shattered widow looked it up, it said 'vengeance is mine'. Based on his state court disbarment, Phelps was banned from practicing law in federal courts from October, 1980 until October, 1982. Amazingly, the pastor was back in trouble almost immediately following his return. Demand letters sent in 1983 to people Phelps planned to sue brought him right back up for disciplinary charges in federal court. Initiated by Wichita lawyer Robert Howard, the complaint charged that Phelps sent letters to businesses and individuals he intended to sue, informing them of litigation unless they paid money to the pastor's client.
Called before a panel of three federal judges barely two years after he had returned to the law, nonetheless Fred and his family of flyspeckers had been busy: Phelps Chartered had almost 200 lawsuits pending in the U.S. courts. In one, the pastor was suing Ronald Reagan for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. In others, he was demanding an injunction against moments of silence in schools; suing a local teacher who had criticized the doctrine of predestination' and asking $5,000,000 in damages for libel from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon for the story it ran in 1983. All of these suits would come to nothing. The sheer number of cases generated out of Phelps Chartered, and the family's genius for antagonization set the stage for the next conflict:
Fred on the deserted platform, waiting to stare down the federal judges arriving on the noon train. Too late, Phelps would learn that, in a staring contest with a federal judge, one should be a fish if they expect him to blink first. The hard lesson would soon take the 'esquire' out of the irascible pastor. Of the five active federal judges in Kansas, two of them, Earl O'Connor of Kansas City and Patrick Kelly of Wichita, had already voluntarily removed themselves from hearing any cases involving Phelps Chartered. Lawyers from the family had filed motions accusing them of racial prejudice, religious prejudice, and conspiring to violate the civil rights of the seven Phelps attorneys. At first, the judges were only too happy to comply: they were as eager to be rid of the Phelps brand of tawdry courtroom hysteria as the pastor and company wanted to be done with them. Kelly, in fact, even told the pastor "good riddance" to his face during a special hearing the judge had called to upbraid Phelps-a hearing for which Kelly would later be reprimanded. Believing he had intimidated them, Fred made his fatal, final mistake as the bad boy of the Kansas courts: he went for a third judge. The pastor publicly accused Richard Rogers of the U.S. District Court in Topeka of racial prejudice, dislike of civil rights cases, engaging in a racially motivated vendetta against the seven Phelpses, and conspiring against them with Judge O'Connor. Rogers counter- charged the Phelpses had launched a campaign to disqualify him from hearing Phelps litigation in an attempt to go 'judge shopping'. Even if Rogers had wanted to remove himself, his hands were tied. Almost 90 of those 200 lawsuits generated by Phelps Chartered had been assigned to Rogers; court-approximately one-fifth of his entire caseload. If Rogers bowed out, it would leave only two federal judges, Dale Saffels of Kansas City and Sam Crow of Wichita, to handle the swarm of 200 Phelps suits, as well as their dockets from the rest of the state. "I'll grant you it creates a logistics problem," admitted Margie Phelps at the time, "but I didn't create the problem. If it takes going to the other end of the United States...to get another judge and bring him in to hear our cases, that's what the law requires." When Rogers refused to acquiesce to the pastor's demands, Phelps began a campaign of innuendo and wild accusations that Topekans today will recognize as pure Fred. An article in the Capital-Journal, January 16 of 1986, describes this early forerunner of the Phelps' fax campaign:
"The judge has disputed affidavits filed by Phelps clients who say he has made derogatory comments about the Phelpses at the Topeka County Club, the YMCA, in an elevator at the First National Bank, and at a judicial conference last September in Tulsa. "For example, the Phelpses accuse Rogers of telling Chris Davis, a Topeka man who attended the Tulsa conference, "You had better not plan on practicing law with the Phelps firm in my court, because I intend putting them out of business before much longer'. "They also quote an affidavit given by Brent Roper, a Topeka man who said Rogers became angry at the conference banquet when a band leader drew attention to the Phelps attorneys. Rogers is said to 'stalked from the ballroom', saying, 'Those - - Phelpses, they're everywhere showing off,' and 'It will be harder now, but I will destroy them.'" The irony here is that both 'Topeka' men quoted as apparent uninvolved bystanders were, in fact, Fred Phelps' sons-in-laws, or soon to be. Chris Davis was one of two families, the Hockenbargers and the Davises, that remained in the Westboro Church. He married the seventh Phelps child, Rebekah, in 1991. The other "Topeka man", Brent Roper, joined the Westboro community as a homeless teenager, was put through law school by the pastor, and married Shirley Phelps. The image of a federal judge stalking from a ballroom uttering darkly, "it will be harder now, but I will destroy them," it seems, on its face, a rather amateurish dip in slander. These are lines from the movies, from a Lex Luthor, and not a Richard Rogers.
It is noteworthy here to mention that Roper is also the author of a privately published book that argues AIDS was first introduced to the United States by Truman Capote, following a book promotion in South Africa. According to Roper, both JFK and Marilyn Monroe contracted the disease simultaneously from Capote during a touch football game in the White House Rose Garden. The CIA was forced to kill the fab couple, he says, to keep them from spreading the deadly virus to the rest of the nation.
Copies may be difficult to find. After Rogers remained stubborn despite the slanderous attacks, he claimed the Phelpses threatened to sue him on behalf of a client Rogers didn't know. It was not an empty threat. In August, 1985, the pastor Phelps and his daughter, Margie, had brought a suit against Judge O'Connor on behalf of a former federal probation officer. Though the man had been removed from his position by a vote of the full court of federal judges, the suit named O'Connor. At the time, O'Connor was under pressure from the Phelpses to disqualify himself (and did) from a 30-judge panel that would rule on the pastor's 1983 demand letters. The family Phelps had started a shooting war in the wrong neighborhood.
On December 16, 1985, a complaint signed by every federal judge in Kansas was lodged against the Phelps lawyers. It called for the disbarment of the seven family attorneys-Fred, Fred, Jr., Jonathon, Margie, Shirley, Elizabeth, and Fred's daughter-in-law, Betty, and the revocation of their corporate charter. The 9 angry judges accused the Phelpses of asserting "claims and positions lacking any grounding in fact", making "false and intemperate accusations" against the judges, and undertaking a "vicious pattern of intimidation" against the court. "Time and time again," says Mark Phelps, "I can remember something would happen in the way of actions or lawsuits being filed against him or one of his clients. He would fume and cuss and strain and spew and carry on. Then, he would come up with his plan of attack.
"He'd get real excited after his deep depression, and he'd carry on around the law office crowing about the cunning, brilliant strategy he had come up with. He'd put it into action, and he'd just thrill over it. "He'd say: 'Do we know how to deal with these types? You bet we do. We goin' to sue the pants off of them. We goin' to slap them with the fattest lawsuit they ever did see. We goin' to frizzle they fricuss and burn all the lent right out of they navel. When they get this, they goin' think twice about messin' with ol' Fred Phelps.' "He'd have a ball thinking about how he was going to get even-and even better than even-and then he'd go into action. "Next thing you knew, they'd respond with some action. And I guess he always thought they'd be like his won family-willing to take anything he dished out. I guess he just naturally expects people to roll over and play dead. So, when they'd come back with a logical, predictable response to his behavior, he'd go crazy: "'These heathen! These Sons of Belial! These enemies of God and His Church! God's gonna get them! He won't let them (get) by with this!' "My father would complain and yell at God, and throw a fit at Mom, and carry on at the kids."
In September of 1987, the federal judicial panel investigating the demand letters sent by Phelps found evidence to sustain two of the four charges against him. The pastor had been accused of demanding money and other relief for claims he knew to be false. The panel of judges issued a public censure of him.
In layman's terms, Pastor Phelps had attempted to strong-arm money from the innocent and been caught. And, come high noon, there would be one less Phelps at the bar. When the nine judges first entered their complaint in 1985, Margie, the spokeswoman and courtroom representative for the family in the matter, said: "The bottom line is we will fight every charge, every way."
But, upon hearing the extent of the evidence collected against them, the Phelpses asked the judges and investigator to find a way to end the case without resorting to litigation. They agreed to the punishment specified in the consent order. Margie signed the order, acknowledging her family accepted it voluntarily and waived any right to appeal.
The resulting compromise singled out those who, according to the investigator, were the three worst offenders: Fred, Jr. was suspended six months from practicing in federal courts. Margie received a one-year suspension, in part because she had maliciously misrepresented a conversation she'd had with Judge O'Connor. Having been suspended from the state courts for cheating his clients, and then barred from them for lying to a trial judge, having been censured in federal courts for pursuing claims he knew to be false, the angry pastor was now barred from them forever because he had lied about the judges in an attempt to impugn the integrity of the court. The leopard may be older, but it still has its spots.
The federal disbarment deprived Fred Phelps of his last arena of legal abuse. Unless he could find a new outlet for his hate, the defrocked esquire from Mississippi was now just an angry eccentric, no lawyer, not even a pastor-except in the fear-conditioned eyes of his family. Nonetheless, Fred Phelps has always held that all the bad things happened in his law career because he was a tireless Christian soldier, battling for black civil rights. A careful examination of his more salient cases, however, reveals once again how, with such odd regularity, some men of the cloth seem to confuse community service with lip and self-service. The hallmark of a devoted civil rights reformer who is also a lawyer ought to be a record of court decisions that, taken together, create legal precedents influencing future cases and, therefore, future society. Sadly, close inspection of Phelps' civil rights record shows he followed the same greedy star he did in the rest of his cases. Lawsuits were filed, but rarely went to trial-and even more rarely reached a decision. Instead, Phelps practiced what he always had: 'take-the-money-and run'. A settlement out-of-court has zero impact on legal precedent. Both sides continue to maintain they were right, only one party pays the other a little money to shut up and go away. In what are probably Fred Phelps' three most famous civil rights cases, he did exactly that each time. In the multi-million dollar Kansas Power and Light case, Phelps filed a class-action on behalf of 2,000 blacks who had accused the utility of discrimination in their hiring and promotion practices.
Fred settled out of court for the following: *Two black employees received $12,000 each. *$100,000 was paid out to the other plaintiffs. If one counts the original 2,000, that made for 50 bucks each.
*Phelps scooped $85,000 in attorney's fees and expenses. *KP&L admitted no wrongdoing and suffered no coercion to alter its allegedly racist policies. KP&L officials claimed they'd settled to avoid an expensive legal battle. "It's unprecedented what we just did," the pastor crowed.
Certainly it left no precedent. In the American Legion suit, which stemmed from a police raid on a Topeka post with a largely black membership, again Phelps settled for small cash outside of court.
Perhaps his most publicized case was the Evelyn Johnson suit, touted as son of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case filed against another Topeka USD 501 school in 1955. Brown vs. Board of Education, along with the Selma bus case, became the basis for the civil rights movement in the sixties. In 1973, Evelyn Johnson's aunt and legal guardian, Marlene Miller, sue the Unified School District, number 501, a state entity which contained the Topeka area public schools. Miller, represented by Fred Phelps, claimed the district had failed to comply with the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. It had not provided the same educational opportunities and environments to the black neighborhoods as it had to the white areas of the city. Phelps boosted Miller's complaint into a 200 million dollar class action suit. When that was tossed out, he pressed on with the individual action on behalf of Mrs. Johnson. In 1979, the pastor agreed to settle out of court with the district's insurance company. Phelps accepted the company's condition the settlement be sealed from public scrutiny to discourage others who might have been inclined to sue for the same reasons. Hardly the act of a hard-knuckled civil rights reformer. When the contents of the settlement were revealed later, it turned out the pastor had collected $19,500 from the insurance company- $10,600 himself, and $8,900 in a trust for Johnson. If the attorneys for Brown had settled for cash outside the courtroom instead of a decision, there would have been no legal grounds for the federal government to pressure a segregated America to conform to the new social standards, and quite possibly no civil rights movement. In light of that, it is difficult to understand how $8,900 in trust to a 15 year- old, uneducated girl was going to remedy either her or her school-mates' problem. After the settlement, Evelyn Johnson attended Topeka High School, rated one of the best in the nation. She performed poorly and dropped out without graduating. Certainly her life and prospects, and those of her peers, remained generally unchanged by the out of court pay-off. Since no ruling was made and no precedent established to reinforce Brown vs. Board of Education, nothing came from six years of Phelps' litigation except $10,600 for himself and a reputation, however undeserved, as a civil rights hero.
In other instances, the issue of civil rights was so flimsily connected, and the case so absurd, that any serious interest in social change on Phelps' part has to be questioned: In 1979, the pastor sued Stauffer Communications, owner of WIBW-TV, for over $1,000,000 on behalf of a 23 year-old black man, Jetson Booth, who had appeared in footage aired by the station. Booth was shown surrounded by police during camera coverage of a shoot-out involving the officers and two unidentified men. "If plaintiff had been a white man, defendants (WIBW-TV) would not have treated him in this fashion," Phelps asserted in the suit. The case was dismissed for lack of cause shown. In 1985, Phelps Chartered was order to pay attorney's fees amounting to $7,800 for police officer Dean Forster after the firm had sued him for civil rights violations of a client. It turned out Forster had no connection to the incident in question, and, furthermore, the Phelps lawyers had known that from the beginning of their litigation. In an astonishing number of his cases, it would seem the pastor thought 'civil rights' was an open sesame to the good life-for himself. In 1979, Phelps was sued by a Wichita law firm that claimed he had "tortiously interfered in the lawyer-client relationship". Three black women and two of their children had been grievously injured in an auto accident. One of the women was in a coma for years. Allegedly, Pastor Phelps learned about the case through local black ministers. He also somehow discovered that the liable insurance company's coverage was not the $100,000 they were claiming-but 1.1 million, of which the lucky attorney representing the victims would scoop up 35 percent . The aggrieved law firm protested Phelps had wooed the clients with his erstwhile reputation as a civil rights advocate. Because of his interference, they asserted, the goose of the golden eggs had fired its midwife attorneys and taken their 35 percent to Phelps Chartered. Phelps responded the other law firm was "all white", and that, in part, they'd lost their clients because of their "racially biased and overbearing treatment of said black people." In the final settlement, however, the judge awarded $644,000 to the victim and $366,000 to the lawyers-of which only $122,000 went to Fred.
Disappointing work for one who'd chased his ambulance with such laudable ethnic sensitivity. Probably the most bizarre and ludicrous example of Fred Phelps exploiting the title of 'civil rights crusader' was in 1983, when three of his children failed to make the cut for Washburn School of Law.
The pastor filed suit in federal court on behalf of Tim, Kathy, and Rebekah, claiming his children should be granted minority status because of his civil rights work. Furthermore, Phelps argued, Washburn Law's record on affirmative action was inadequate. They needed to accept more blacks into their freshman class each year.
"It is important to note this case is brought by white applicants who are asking to be treated as blacks," observed Carl Monk, dean of the law school. "They would not be asking to be treated as blacks unless they felt such treatment would help them." That case was still in court the following year when Washburn allowed Timothy in but again denied admission to Kathy and Rebekah.
The reverend filed suit once more, but this time with a twist. In the second suit, he offered his children were the victims of reverse discrimination because they were white. He complained the law school had admitted blacks in 1984 who were far less qualified than his own offspring. So much for the family commitment to affirmative action. U.S. District Judge, Frank Theis, was not amused. Ruling on the 1983 case, he stated first that, "the plaintiffs simply were not qualified for admission to law school," and second, that the new 1984 case weakened the case before him from 1983. The judge told Phelps he could not argue the school discriminated against blacks, and then sue again, saying it preferred blacks over whites, and be taken seriously. Katherine and Rebekah eventually got their law degrees down at Oklahoma City University. Phelps Chartered got spanked with a $55,000 assessment by the court to pay Washburn's attorneys' fees. It was negotiated down, and Pastor Fred signed the check over at $12,000 in restitution for bringing a 'frivolous suit of no merit' against the college. In Phelps' eyes, it had been another blow against empire for the bold pastor. There is an interesting sidebar to this story. When the Phelps children were first turned down by Washburn in 1983, they appealed to the law school's internal grievance committee. It found no race-based discrimination in the rejection of the three Phelps. However, one of the panel members, Karl Hockenbarger, a Washburn University employee, filed a dissent, stating it was clear to him the three had been "denied admission to the law school because of their identification with Fred Phelps Sr., and the cause of civil rights for blacks." Hockenbarger went on to add: "Blacks in Kansas generally depend on the Phelps family and firm as their last and best hope for attaining equal justice." He is, of course, the same Karl Hockenbarger who daily pickets with the Phelpses, and one of the few non-family members who still attends the pastor's church at Westboro.
Mr. Hockenbarger's shared concern with his pastor for the plight of Kansas blacks may not be as deep as it appears: Police surveillance of the Westboro community has allegedly tied Hockenbarger to white supremacist groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Ku Klux Klan. "Civil rights lawsuits presented a vast opportunity to make money back then," says Nate Phelps. "My father used to say he had a huge target and all he had to do was shoot. I don't blame him for choosing a lucrative area of the law, it's just that he was not motivated by some noble, altruistic desire "to champion the case of the downtrodden." Asked if he filed "nuisance lawsuits" once, Pastor Phelps replied: "They think it's a nuisance if you call a black man a nigger. That's just trivial to them, bit it's not trivial to him, and it's not trivial to his children."
During their teenage years, both Mark and Nate worked as law clerks in their father's office. "When a black client was in there," recalls Nate, "my father would play the 'DN' game with us. It stands for 'dumb nigger'. We would all try to use the acronym as often as possible in the presence of the person involved." In the 1983 interview with the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, Phelps intoned, echoing Abraham Lincoln: "The air of the United States is too pure for racial prejudice to keep going, and the nation can't long endure half-slave and half-free. There is not any doubt that the problems of this country derive, in my humble opinion, from the way this country continues to treat black people." But according to his sons in California, part of the theology of the Old Calvinism Fred taught held that blacks were a subservient race because they were the sons of Ham, the son of Noah. Cursed for ridiculing Noah's nakedness, Ham's children were born black, according to the Bible. Some scholars attribute apartheid in South Africa to the fact that the white minority is predominantly Calvinist and takes the Ham story to heart.
Mark definitely recalls that his father taught the Ham story and took it to its Calvinist conclusions: the black race was cursed and meant to be the "servants of servants" - i.e., subservient to whites. Nate agrees. "He taught that in Sunday sermon many times while we were growing up." Both boys recall their father used to tell black jokes.
"And he'd imitate them after they'd left our office," remembers Mark. However, the piece-de-resistance in the ongoing saga of Phelps hypocrisy is the pastor's relationship with the Reverend Pete Peters of La Porte, Colorado.
Peters is the guru-philosopher of the Christian Identity Movement. Known simply as "Identity", the movement believes the white race is God's true Chosen People. They assert the Jews are animal souls that rewrote the Old Testament to give themselves the Chosen's birthright. Blacks are "mud people" who also possess animal souls-meaning they are not immortal and cannot go to heaven. According to Identity, blacks and Jews want to eliminate the white race and rule the earth.
Randy Weaver, the man arrested in the Idaho mountaintop shout-out with F.B.I., was a member of the Posse Comitatus and a follower of Identity. Peters broadcasts his shortwave radio program, "Scriptures for America", around the world, calling for death to homosexuals and warning against the international Jewish conspiracy. Fred Phelps has done broadcasts on "Scriptures for America", and tapes of his anti-gay message and offered for sale in Peters' mail order catalogues. When asked about it, Pastor Phelps only smiles enigmatically and offers that Pete Peters owns the rights to those broadcasts and can sell them if he wants. But Peters, reached by phone at his church in La Porte, says: "If he (Fred Phelps) didn't want them out, even if I had a right, I wouldn't put them out. I have the greatest respect for him." The militant white supremacist then adds ominously, "He's got the support of god-fearing people across this country that are not afraid to back a man who tells it like it is. "And he's got my support if he needs help-whenever he needs help." Not empty words.
Though Peters himself was cleared, it is still widely believed by Klanwatch and other groups monitoring extremist activity that the right- wing hit team that killed Alan Berg, the Denver talk radio host, came from or were associated with Peters' congregation. Reverend Fred Phelps, friend of the struggling black?
Listed next to one of Fred's tapes in Pete Peters' catalogue is one by Jack Mohr, a man who describes himself as the "Brigadier General of the Christian Patriot Defense League", but whom the F.B.I. has identified as a weapons instructor for the Ku Klux Klan. Why in the world would a person with these associations proclaim himself a civil rights' crusader?
In the words of 'Deep Throat', "follow the money." And in those of Richard Seaton, the Assistant Attorney General who led the first attempt to disbar Phelps back in 1969, the pastor had "an uncontrollable appetite for money-especially the money of his clients."