Ask the Attorney: D. Collette Wilson

California attorney D. Colette Wilson has been involved with Life Legal Defense Foundation since its founding fifteen years ago. She has contributed countless hours of pro bono work representing pro-life activists, beginning with Operation Rescue cases in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She is also one of several lawyers who worked on the case of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) v. Joseph Scheidler, in which pro-abortion forces tried to apply racketeering laws to pro-life activists. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning an 8-to-1 victory in 2003.

A 1976 graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, she attended Loyola of Los Angeles Law School at night while working full-time as a legal secretary, then later as a law clerk. She graduated in December of 1985, passed the bar exam on her first attempt in February of 1986 and was admitted to practice in June of 1986. As a pro-life attorney, Mrs. Wilson helped instigate a successful class action against Family Planning Associates, the biggest abortion business in California, for failing to protect hundreds of its clients’ private medical records (records with names were found discarded without having been shredded; injured clients shared a $1 million settlement in the class action). Most recently she has helped LLDF defend the First Amendment rights of pro-life college students who wish to speak on campuses. She and her husband of thirteen years, Tim Wilson, are the parents of a son, Paul, 6, and a daughter, Vida, 4, each adopted at birth from teenage mothers.

You have been active as an attorney with Life Legal Defense Foundation since it was founded fifteen years ago, you served jail time after taking part in non-violent pro-life demonstrations, you have been a sidewalk counselor outside abortion clinics, and you and your husband have adopted two children. What inspired you to be a pro-life attorney and activist?

What got me to be willing to go to jail to save babies from abortion was having read and pondered books by Christians who really paid a price to serve God, such as Corrie Ten Boom—she and her family were taken to Nazi concentration camps for helping Jews escape from Holland during World War II—and Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor and convert from Judaism— who suffered severe persecution under the Nazis and again later by Communists. He wrote the book “Tortured for Christ.”

When I became involved with Operation Rescue, there was one thing that made a huge, huge difference for me. There was a rally during the Holy Week rescues of 1989. It was Good Friday (and rescue demonstrations outside abortion clinics were scheduled for the following day). There was a little baby, dead, who had been aborted by saline solution, so her body was intact—she was pretty big, sixteen or twenty weeks—and she was in a little coffin. All of us walked by and looked at her. The sight of her and looking at her just really got to me. I’ve really felt a sense of responsibility to that little girl. Where was I when that was done to her? Adults are bigger. Adults are supposed to make the world safe for little kids. Where was I? Next day, when we were scheduled to be outside the clinics, it was raining really hard. The person directing us to sit shoulder-to-shoulder told me to sit right there and pointed—right at a puddle. I really hesitated. I did not want to sit for hours in a cold, dirty puddle and get cold and wet. Then I thought about that little girl. So I sat in the puddle. That was when my life crossed the line to where it is now. Now I am trying to live my life for the babies, for that little girl.

When did you decide to use your legal skills in the pro-life arena?

After taking part in a three-day series of Los Angeles-area rescues and being arrested and jailed with 750 others on Holy Saturday, we were all taken to arraignment on Monday morning. I noticed that for all of us who were willing to get arrested to save babies, there was just one attorney to represent all these people. I thought, “I am an attorney; I could go back and block clinic doors—or I could use my legal skills. I ought to do that.” At the time I was working for a solo-practice real estate attorney—I like to work in the background—doing research and writing. I loved that job but I quit to be available to attend the various court dates for people who were arrested after demonstrating and being removed for trespass or for resisting arrest by going limp. I went back to being a legal secretary and worked for a temp agency. That gave me the flexibility to represent people who needed an attorney. At the end of that year, 1989, I was asked to take a trial for a group of about ten demonstrators who were charged with trespass and the more serious matter of resisting arrest. It was a jury trial.

Was this trial a personal turning point?

My future husband happened to be in that group! [The couple realized later that they had both been in the Holy Saturday rescue mentioned above, but they had not yet met.] I noted [argued] that the La Mesa police had used pain compliance techniques severe enough that it caused some of the rescuers to pass out. I argued that my clients were therefore not guilty of resisting arrest, since a person does not have a duty to submit to an illegal arrest, such as one where police use excessive force. The jury did not buy it. Also, the judge enjoined everyone from using certain words in the courtroom, such as baby, rescue, abortion—on the grounds that they were too inflammatory. Other words, such as Nazi and murderer, were also banned. Using the words amounted to contempt of court and there were fines for the use of each word. But I used baby, rescue, and abortion. These people were not blocking a donut shop, they were trying to save lives.

One witness for the defense used the word baby and also showed a plastic model of an unborn baby as a visual. For my use of four banned words, I was fined $1550, which I refused to pay, so that translated to thirty-one days in jail at a rate of $50 per day. The witness was held in contempt and jailed for 5 days.

There were also some outbursts among spectators, one of whom was held in contempt and jailed for 15 days. It was a case in which, in the end, the clients, the lawyer, a witness, and even a spectator all went to jail. [Laughs.] During this case, the judge took me aside in chambers and lectured me about contempt. He asked, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to report you to the state bar and have you disbarred?” I thought to myself, well, it’s only by God’s grace that I was able to become a lawyer, so my license to practice is really God’s. I told him, “Your Honor, I have to answer to a higher judge.” I kept thinking, [when] He asks me, “Did you really do your best to defend these clients?” would I answer, “I couldn’t because they wouldn’t let me use these words”? So—despite the threat of losing my license—I used the words.

[Mrs. Wilson served three weeks of the thirty-one day sentence, which was reduced to time served after a colleague intervened with the judge on her behalf.]

How did your courtship proceed?

Of course I visited all of my clients in jail, but Tim Wilson, I felt kind of sorry for him because he was in the downtown San Diego jail. It was overcrowded, the lights and TV were on all the time, it was noisy.

If I visited, we could sit in the lawyers’ counsel room where it was quiet. One time we talked seven hours without anyone ever coming in to say time was up; I finally had to go! We became friends as a result of that and married in July of 1991 and went to Wichita, Kansas on our honeymoon to take part in a rescue. It was a real cool honeymoon—we were arrested three times together; it was really romantic.

Why was your husband interested in pro-life activity?

Tim (a carpenter) worked as a very young man, aged 18 or 19, as a janitor for a janitorial company that had an abortion clinic among its clients. Sometimes he literally saw tiny little arms and legs that he had to clean up and put down the garbage disposal. He had nightmares. [Later, during rescue demonstrations] I saw him literally being tortured by police who wanted him to move away from a clinic and he would not move. He knew that the longer he stayed, the longer it would be until another baby died. He knew.

Why did you later become a sidewalk counselor?

In 1994, I took a seminar from Life Dynamics on how to prosecute an abortion malpractice case because as a lawyer I thought it was something I should know how to do. I came away with two conclusions: You had to have a big war chest because those cases can run to $100,000 in costs alone; and the lawyer needs to be really aggressive, like a shark. That is not me. I am a background person. So I thought that if I could stand outside a clinic, perhaps I would be in a place to observe something if an injury did take place and I could get help from another attorney for an injured woman. About the same time I felt compelled to get involved because of the passage of F.A.C.E. legislation (which outlaws blocking of abortion clinic entrances). I took a really good look at the law. Rescues had involved blocking but sidewalk counseling involved no crowds, no hoopla. In fact, sidewalk counseling works better when there are fewer people. You want to be inviting, to have a one-on-one conversation. The F.A.C.E. prohibitions didn’t affect me as a sidewalk counselor. I also thought that as a lawyer I could be an example. If a lawyer could do that, then others might see that it was legal, that it was O.K. I began to train other sidewalk counselors, and tapped into Life Legal Defense Foundation resources to check points of law that I was teaching.

Weren’t you involved in litigation with the notorious abortionist, Edward Allred?

Yes! My husband used to go through the dumpsters of the various Family Planning Associates abortion clinics, to see what “helpful” information we could glean from their office trash—maybe evidence of Medi- Cal fraud, who knows? He always found a lot of unshredded patient documents with women’s names and addresses and often copies of drivers’ licenses. I saw the potential for a class-action lawsuit. In May 1999 we wrote letters to 10,000 former patients, urging them to call the clinics and the doctors’ homes to complain about this violation of their privacy and also suggesting they take legal action. Over 200 women sued FPA as a result, and FPA promptly sued Tim and me for stirring up this hornet’s nest. With a lot of help from LLDF, Tim and I were able to get FPA to drop the case against us after a year. As for the patients’ case against Family Planning Associates, it also ended successfully, although only after four arduous years in court. I had no idea, back when Tim and I were in the planning stages of our vision to use FPA’s trash against them in a lawsuit, that it would end up being such a roller coaster ride for the law firm that would eventually sue on behalf of the women whose records were left in the dumpsters. Now, looking back, I have nothing but the highest admiration for Jack Schuler, who rode that case like a bucking bronco and was never thrown. Those FPA lawyers definitely milked that case for all it was worth, costing Edward Allred a huge heap of money for the defense. But on the other side of that fight was Jack Schuler, from June 1999 until September 2003 when he finally reached a settlement and got all 200 of his clients to agree to it. The case ultimately settled for $1 million, with each woman getting several thousand dollars.

Between 1999 and 2003, FPA closed four abortion clinics, Cypress, Inglewood, North Hollywood, and Ventura. Plus they moved the La Mesa clinic to much smaller quarters near downtown San Diego. And on top of that, I found out that they recently closed the infamous San Vicente Hospital location, apparently because Allred “just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.”

I would credit the costliness of this litigation as at least part of the reason why they are down by four, overall, from what was in 1999 a chain of twenty abortion mills. Praise God!

Was the adoption of your children related to your pro-life work?

Our being able to adopt Paul and Vida was not linked to any women I counseled in the course of my sidewalk counseling. However, because of being so active in pro-life work, Tim and I came more easily to mind when the pro-life counselors who recommended us as adoptive parents were asked for a recommendation of someone who could be ready to adopt a baby ready to be born. Both Paul’s and Vida’s birth mothers went to great lengths to hide their pregnancies from their friends and families in order to avoid being pressured to have abortions, so it is true that both our children were rescued from certain death. These birth moms really sacrificed of themselves to carry their babies to term. They also both felt they had to keep their pregnancies secret in order to avoid serious harassment from their families for doing what in their culture was unthinkable: placing their babies for adoption.

How do you balance pro bono work and family responsibilities?

We do our best to live frugally on one income. My husband watches our kids while I work from home, and he’s very supportive of my prolife legal work, whether paying or not. We have a flexible, kind of crazy, schedule.

Do you have advice for other attorneys interested in pro-life work?

I made a commitment to do 450 hours of probono work after attending a week of seminars put on by the Alliance Defense Fund in July 2002. The seminars were very worthwhile, and they were free in exchange for making a commitment to do 450 hours of pro-bono work benefiting the Kingdom of God within a three-year time period. I fulfilled my 450 hours in less than two years, most of it on LLDF projects. I would encourage every Christian attorney to take advantage of the free seminars from A.D.F. and also to make that 450-hour commitment. It’s a sacrifice, yes, but, to use a biblical reference: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Luke 10:2) We lawyers are uniquely qualified to push back against the rising tide of evil in our culture in a way that others can’t, so we should do what we can to help out when the opportunity presents itself.

Author: Life Legal

The Life Legal Defense Foundation is a non-profit law firm that specializes in the defense of vulnerable human life, especially life in the womb.