Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser. Sandy Huffaker

Legion made impact on Mojave cross case

On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, for now, a Latin cross honoring World War I veterans in the Mojave Desert does not need to be removed or concealed from public view. Attempts to remove the monument, erected in 1934, were led by the American Civil Liberties Union and resulted in a box being placed over the cross, but the Supreme Court said the cross could stay standing and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court to give it a chance to see if any other legal alternatives exist. However, the High Court reminded the District Court that: "Respect for a coordinate branch of Government forbids striking down an Act of Congress except upon a clear showing of unconstitutionality."

The American Legion filed friend-of-the-court briefs as the Mojave Cross case moved through the legal system. Liberty Institute - a nonprofit organization that works to educate, advocate, and, when necessary, litigate for freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution such as freedom of speech and religious freedom - has filed briefs on behalf of the Legion and other organizations in the Mojave Desert Cross case and similar cases across the country.

Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for Liberty Institute, spoke with The American Legion about the Supreme Court's ruling and what the future holds for the case.

Q: How important was the amicus brief (friend-of-the-court brief) in the way the Court ruled?

A: The brief that we filed, that The American Legion filed, was cited no less than 12 times throughout all the opinions collectively. As a friend-of-the-court brief, that's unheard of. Usually a brief is being shown a lot of respect when it's cited maybe once. That's a big deal. This thing was cited at least a dozen times and relied upon. It was obviously very influential - it was the most influential brief outside of the briefs of both parties in the case, judging by how much it was used throughout the opinion. I think it had a huge impact on the case. Had the Legion and the veterans groups not stood together ... this case may very have gone the other way.

Q: What is The American Legion's role in the process now that the Supreme Court has ruled the way it has?

A: The most important thing now is that veterans groups, including The American Legion, continue on being involved in this case until the box comes off (the cross). You can say the Mojave Desert now is sort of the Battle of Midway. Everything was sort of going against us. We have a decisive, strategic victory turnaround. A major battle was won, which is fantastic, but the war continues. We have all the momentum now, but we have to continue to press, we have to continue to fight, we have to continue to do everything that's necessary to present all the best arguments to make sure that eventually this memorial can stand and honor the veterans it was intended to honor.

Q: The next step is going back to District Court, correct?

A: It's going back to the original District Court with a very strong suggestion to find the land transfer constitutional and to dismiss this case.

Q: What is this ruling going to do for the cases like the Boys Scouts using Balboa Park and the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial?

A: Because there were only two justices who adopted our standing argument - saying that Frank Buono in the Mojave case does not have standing to bring the case - it didn't have enough votes to do anything with, so the Supreme Court denied review, and it's going to go back down to the District Court, and they're going to have to proceed with the case.

With the Soledad case, standing, I don't think, was ever the main argument. When it comes to the merits of the case, the Mojave case, that should be a strong indication to the Ninth Circuit (Court) to uphold this veterans memorial in San Diego and to dismiss that case. But they may not. They may not follow the direction of the Supreme Court, and the Mt. Soledad case may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Mojave case may make its way all the way back to the Supreme Court again ... if the District Court doesn't follow the advice (of the Supreme Court). They should, but that doesn't mean they will.

Q: What was it like making that phone call to (Mojave cross caretaker) Henry Sandoz and his wife after the ruling?

A: It was bittersweet. It was sweet in the sense of being able to tell them we won and that ultimately the box is coming off. The only downer for them was that I had to tell them it wasn't coming off any time soon, and I can't tell them when it will come off. It might take months or years, but it will come off.