Ask the Attorney: An Interview with Michael J. Norton

Michael J. Norton is a senior member of the law firm of Burns, Figa & Will, P.C., in Englewood, Colorado. He specializes in complex civil litigation, white-collar-criminal defense, and wills, trusts, and estate planning. From 1988 to 1993, he was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, a position to which he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and then reappointed by President George H. W. Bush.

As U.S. Attorney for Colorado, Mr. Norton was the chief law enforcement officer for the state and directed criminal and civil justice priorities in the district. Among many other matters, he coordinated the government’s investigation and prosecution of Rockwell International Corporation for environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Golden, Colorado. The result was the imposition of an $18.5 million fine, at that time the largest criminal hazardous waste fine in U.S. history. Mr. Norton resigned as U.S. Attorney in 1993 to enter private practice. A 1960 graduate of Colgate University, he earned his law degree at the American University’s Washington College of Law. He is married to the former Jane Ellen Bergman of Grand Junction, Colorado. Mrs. Norton currently serves as lieutenant governor of the State of Colorado. Together, they have four children. Mr. Norton’s oldest son, Jeff, died of leukemia in 1983. His daughter Lori and her family live in Colorado, his son Joe and his family live in Virginia, and Mr. Norton has two children by marriage: Lacee and Tyler Artist. Mr. Norton is active in his church and currently is a candidate for a master of arts degree in Christian studies at Denver Seminary.

What is the focus of your pro-life work?
I have worked on pro-life cases a little over ten years and the work has been almost exclusively First Amendment-oriented. One current Life Legal Defense Foundation case in which a woman, Jo Scott, is a defendant, has competing First Amendment issues. Jo is a defendant in a case involving St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver where Mrs. Scott and others have, for more than ten years, been picketing against the Church’s support of abortion. The competing First Amendment concerns are Mrs. Scott’s right to free speech; and the Church congregation’s right to freedom of worship. Recently, Mrs. Scott and the Church amicably settled the case in a manner that preserves Mrs. Scott’s right to continue picketing against the Church’s pro-abortion policies.

Why are you pro-life?
Before 1983, I really did not give the issue much consideration. Then, in 1983, my oldest son died of leukemia. At his funeral service, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. That experience also caused me to realize how precious life is, and to appreciate that whenever a doubt about life arises, the benefit of the doubt must go to life. Shortly thereafter, I began to assist those involved in the pro-life movement, mostly in defense of precious First Amendment liberties. My pro-life views have resulted in service to the causes of Life Legal Defense Foundation and other like-minded organizations. Today, I am open to helping where I can in religious freedom and family values cases.

What kind of pro-life clients do you prefer to represent?
Usually, my clients have been charged with various crimes relating to picketing or protesting against abortion. While I don’t always agree with the methods my clients use, I do agree each client is entitled to effective assistance of counsel and a vigorous defense. That said, we do better in all things if we speak the truth in love. Often, bad facts, including unreasonable methods, can lead to bad law. Mrs. Scott, for example, communicates in a loving and Godly way. She prays and uses Scripture as she communicates her views in a soft and caring way.
My other current clients for Life Legal Defense Foundation are Keith Mason and Jonathan O’Toole. Along with others, Mr. Mason and Mr. O’Toole were engaged in March 2004 in pro-life picketing and leafleting on a public sidewalk near a college campus in Golden, Colorado. Although they attempted to obtain a permit as required by college policy, the officer in charge of giving out permits was then on vacation. Both were summarily arrested by a campus police officer and criminally charged, initially, with obstructing a police officer and then later with criminal trespass. Both prevailed, with the assistance of another fine pro-life attorney, in the criminal prosecutions against them. We have now filed a civil rights section 1983 lawsuit in Federal Court against the college and the police officers seeking injunctive relief against the permit policy on grounds it constitutes an unreasonable prior restraint on their First Amendment free speech rights. At this time, the case is in the deposition stage, however, the college has expressed an interest in settling the case and is reportedly in the process of changing its permit policy. One of the best pieces of evidence in the case is the video recording of Mr. Mason’s peaceful, calm demeanor in contrast with that of the campus police officer who appears quite aggressive and agitated.

How do you plan to continue your own pro-life work?
As a Christian attorney, I often say yes to requests from members of the Christian community who need assistance even if I am overloaded with other matters. I intend to continue to be what I hope is an effective witness for Christ and continue to be effective for LLDF on pro-life and other First Amendment-related issues in Colorado. Whenever LLDF-oriented activities come up, I try to jump on them. Although pro-life work does not mesh naturally with my practice, which focuses on wills, trusts and estates, I squeeze in pro-life work wherever I possibly can. For example, as Christmas 2005 approached, as a part of an Alliance Defense Fund project, I wrote and distributed a “Frequently Asked Questions” question-and-answer memorandum of law about what public school officials can actually do to celebrate Christmas to all 180 Colorado public school superintendents and to all 380 Colorado high school principals. The response was positive. Among the replies, one high school principal, in expressing thanks for the memorandum, responded that this memo marked the first time in his thirty years of service in Colorado public schools that he had received such a communication.

Do you have any words for others working with LLDF in defense of life from conception to natural death?
God bless you guys. Just say yes when asked to help—you can do it! Keep up the good fight. We will win in the end but we’ve got to keep on keeping on. Never give in!