Ask the Attorney: An Interview with Cyrus Johnson

Although Life Legal Defense Foundation has its own dedicated and talented staff attorneys, it nevertheless must rely on a number of private attorneys across the country to represent (often on a pro bono basis) those whose pro-life activities have caused them to need legal assistance, and who have come to LLDF looking for that assistance. As varied as their areas of practice and experience might be, these attorneys have one thing in common: a willingness—and in some cases an eagerness—to use their legal training, skills and experience in the defense of these defenders of life. Cyrus Johnson is one such attorney.

Cyrus received both his bachelors degree and his law degree from the University of San Francisco. He was admitted to the California bar in 2003. Since that time he has developed an active practice specializing in intellectual property, commercial transactions, business law and finance. Cyrus and his wife are father and mother to five children and live in San Mateo, California.

What cases or matters have you handled on behalf of LLDF or its clients?

The first matter I worked on with LLDF concerned a gentleman named Ross Foti. It arose here in San Mateo, where I live. Ross has a pro-life truck—a truck covered with photos of aborted babies. Ross was arrested—a citizen’s arrest—by his pastor at St. Matthew’s Church in San Mateo. [LLDF Legal Director] Katie Short called me and asked if I could represent Ross. The case was People v. Ross Foti—two counts of trespass. I agreed.

By coincidence, that was my parish. I had grown up in that parish and used to be an altar boy at the church. Now my wife and I and our kids were in that parish. I knew the pastor well, and had known Ross over the years. It was a little awkward at first, but I only take a case if I believe it is the right thing to do and have made the determination that there is a point of justice to be made.

It all had to do with Ross’s pro-life truck. Some of the parents were upset at having it parked there in the morning when Ross went to Mass where children would see it when they were being dropped off at school. So Ross was told not to come back with his truck. Ross did come back to Mass, but he didn’t have his truck with him. Ross came back to Mass twice, and on the third time, the pastor called the police, who were waiting outside when Ross came out from Mass. The officer didn’t want to arrest him, but suggested to the pastor that he could make a citizen’s arrest—which he did.

Subsequently, at one of the court hearings, I walked over to the prosecuting attorney and asked, “Are you really going to throw the man in jail for going to Mass?” I don’t know what it was, but they decided to drop the charges.

The second experience I had doing pro-life work was in 2007. Pacific Justice Institute and LLDF were looking for a lawyer to go before the Oakland City Council to talk about the bubble ordinance there. I used to practice in Oakland, so I volunteered. I did argue against the ordinance in front of the City Council. After that I received a telephone call from World Net Daily, as a result of which I ended up writing an article on World Net Daily discussing what is wrong with the ordinance.

Later Katie Short called me up and said, “Great article, but don’t give away the whole argument yet. We’re not done here.” I eventually spoke before the Oakland City Council three or four times, and from that developed my involvement in the Hoye case.

During the Hoye case there were two sidewalk counselors who were being deposed by the City of Oakland. I was asked by LLDF to represent them at their depositions.

The third matter I have been involved with on behalf of LLDF is ongoing. Planned Parenthood has requested a permit to open a clinic in Redwood City, California. This has drawn neighborhood opposition from folks who aren’t necessarily pro-life, but who don’t want this business in their neighborhood. LLDF is assisting some of those who are opposing it. Presently there are negotiations between Redwood City and another LLDF attorney, Greg Weiler, with some of which I am involved.

Would it be correct to say that these three matters are outside your usual areas of practice?

It would be. I am a commercial attorney, specializing in business, intellectual property, and finance work. But I am a frustrated trial attorney. When I graduated from USF [University of San Francisco] law in 2002 I had interned with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office for almost a year. I was trying to get a job with them and was told they had a hiring freeze. They proposed that I come and work for them for a year free, and then they would see if they could get me a job. My wife and I had just had our first child, and I didn’t think that my wife would like me to be working without getting paid. So I let that pass. It is hard to break into trial work. There are more avenues to get into commercial practice, and that is what I did. So part of what my work with LLDF has allowed me to do is to get into areas of practice to which I would not otherwise have access.

So as opposed to feeling like you are jumping into unfamiliar areas with your pro-life work, you are actually getting into an area of practice for which you have an aptitude and a desire?

Absolutely. In law school I was on the advanced moot court team. I was a semi-finalist for Advocate of the Year. I participated in the Intensive Advocacy Program over the summer. It was great. They taught me how to do a deposition, how to argue a motion, how to do a trial. I thought, “This is great stuff.” I felt that I was cut out to be a trial attorney. But the way things happened in my life, I found myself mainly doing transactional work. I actually prefer the advocacy role as an attorney.

Having said that, have you given any thought as to how your particular legal skills and experience as your practice is now constituted could be utilized in the pro-life cause?

I think my skills and experience are applicable. In the area of intellectual property, I have had experience with clients who want to undertake a boycott or otherwise bring pressure to bear on companies that are supporting Planned Parenthood. They may want to use that company’s name or brand. So there is a question as to whether the client will be infringing on that company’s corporate trademark. How do you structure the campaign in such a way that it doesn’t violate the company’s intellectual property rights?

Also, you have people writing things on blogs. There is a lot of internet-oriented advocacy going on. Or I can envision someone with an intellectual property toolkit like I have being valuable to the pro-life movement when you are thinking of defending people like Lila Rose of Live Action. They are going into Planned Parenthood clinics and videotaping surreptitiously. There are legal issues there, some of which pertain to intellectual property. Increasingly we will be finding attorneys who are otherwise equipped—non-trial attorneys—useful in promoting the cause of life.

To whom or to what do you attribute your strong pro-life convictions?

For me it is just natural. Since college it has made sense to me to be pro-life. It doesn’t make sense to be otherwise. I look at it philosophically and religiously. The pro-abortion position is a suicidal mentality. It is an anti-human mentality. It is a nihilistic mentality. I look at it and I think, “Here is humanity trying to destroy itself.” As an attorney I am sworn to uphold truth and justice. I am not allowed not to participate in some way in that conversation. I am not allowed to opt out and say, “I’m neutral.” I believe that humanity targeting itself for extinction is wrong, and the way I participate is by doing what I can for the pro-life side as an attorney. We all do it—or should—even in more commercial contexts, giving personal witness to the cause of—I almost don’t like the term “pro-life”. I would just say, “humanity”.

Humanity was created to survive and to thrive. If you are against life, you are against humanity. We, humanity, should be pro-humanity.

Can you see yourself getting involved in the future in pro-life litigation?

Yes, I can see that. I certainly hope that I move more into the pro-life litigation area. In my opinion, the culture is increasingly encroaching on peoples’ personal liberties—particularly religious liberties. Someone said, “The cost of not accepting the big morality is that you get a lot of little moralities.” So there is a lot of petty moralizing and it seems to me to be increasing. The culture seems to be more on the offensive against the person.

One example would be the Walter Hoye case. He stands on a public sidewalk peacefully offering help and ends up in Santa Rita jail and involved in years of litigation. Another example would be over-zealous social workers intervening in the affairs of families who want to conduct their family or religious lives as they see fit. The culture—not primarily the government, but primarily the culture—has an increasing tendency to intrude into the area of the family. Man is a moral being. If he does not accept morality as it is, he will invent moralities according to his whims. This is the reason for greater intrusions.

A third example would be the business world. There is an apartheid of thought which says that considerations of the immutable human dimensions of reality are non-commercial and don’t factor in. Commerce is supposed to be agnostic. There is either commercial life or there is private life, and the two don’t intersect, which is ironic. If you have no people, you have no commerce.

As a result of this cultural offensive against personal liberties we are going to see more and more people who are otherwise law-abiding being pulled into the criminal and civil justice systems as defendants. For example, a wedding photographer who declines a job for a same-sex pseudo-married couple. With increasing frequency, we will see people who have never had legal problems now having these problems.

Freedom appears to be a growth industry. From a commercial perspective, freedom is in dwindling supply. As freedom is being curtailed in both our private lives and in the public arena, more people are going to seek that freedom. And who is going to engage in that struggle? The attorney, usually. I think that there will be a growth of this kind of practice and personally, I hope that I can be a part of that growth and make a contribution.

What advice would you give to an attorney who is considering doing pro bono pro-life work?

Do you mean professional advice? Be over-prepared.Otherwise, I would quote Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: “God doesn’t require us to be successful; he only requires us to be faithful.” And I would say you have two choices: You stand for humanity or you don’t. If you are an attorney and some matter comes to you and you have some capacity to meet that need, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. You need to respond positively. You need to say “yes” to humanity when it’s asking for your help.