Ask the Attorney: An Interview with Terry L Thompson

Terry L. Thompson, an attorney in private practice in the San Francisco East Bay Area, is a Life Legal Defense Foundation board member and volunteer attorney. In concert with other LLDF attorneys, he has argued pro bono for the free speech rights of defendants sued for doing sidewalk counseling outside abortion mills. Terry also serves on the board of California Right to Life while maintaining his practice, which includes business law, wills, and trusts.

Before becoming an attorney, he served jail time himself for clinic rescue activity. Currently he is on the LLDF legal team challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 71, the state law passed by California voters to fund human embryonic stem cell research. Educated as a mechanical engineer at Cornell University, Mr. Thompson had a career with Bechtel Corporation and later co-founded an engineering firm specializing in long-distance pipeline transportation of solids. He and his wife, Dee, were married in 1960 and have three adult daughters, all married, and six grandchildren. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson began sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics in the 1980s and they still go out to the local abortion clinic once a week.

Who inspired your interest in the pro-life movement?

My wife, Dee, in the 1980s started going to the local abortion clinic, and in connection with that, asked about inviting the neighbors to see a film called The Silent Scream. I had never heard of it—all I thought was that we were providing a place for people to see a film. When I saw that film, I was convicted that abortion was murder. I had not thought about the issue before that. My wife led the way.

What did you do after seeing the film?

I joined Dee as a sidewalk counselor outside our local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. About that time, Operation Rescue had their 1993 “cities of refuge” campaign and we went to one of their meetings. They asked people to raise their hands if they were willing to risk arrest for demonstrating outside clinics. I thought, “If I believe that abortion is murder, I had better act like it.” I raised my hand. I ended up getting arrested three times and serving three weeks in jail. My wife was arrested once. She served a month in jail.

Where did you serve your jail time?

I call it the Elmwood Christian Retreat Center (laughs). Actually it was the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas. My wife and I were serving sentences at the same time. I was in the men’s section and she was in the women’s. One day using my telephone privilege, I happened to call my youngest daughter at the same time my wife had called her. Our daughter was able to patch the calls together, and Dee and I got to talk to each other. It was serendipity—or we might call it God’s will. I had another experience in jail: The man in the bunk above me, Keith, asked why I was there and I told him. He said he knew all about “your people,” as he called all pro-life people. He had met a sidewalk counselor six or seven years back when he and his wife, who was pregnant, decided on an abortion and went to a local clinic. After yelling at the sidewalk counselor who had approached them with a brochure, Keith went to his vehicle while his wife went inside for the abortion. Keith read the literature that had been handed to him, had a change of heart, rushed past the guard into the clinic, and cried out asking his wife if she wanted to abort. She said, “No!” He helped her up off the gurney and they left. As I crawled into my bunk later that evening, I noticed Keith’s personal box— a small clear plastic drawer that each inmate was given to store personal items. On the end facing me, I could see a hand-made card with a crayoned heart and the writing of a six-yearold. It read, “Happy Birthday Daddy. I love you. Tiffany.” It brought tears to my eyes.

What role does faith play in your life?

I was raised in a Christian home with good values, read the Bible through twice when I was in high school and was president of our church youth group, but you could say I was a cultural Christian. When I got to college I received challenges to my faith and could not defend it. It was easier to become agnostic. In the mid-1980s I dedicated my life to the Lord and experienced a saving faith. I’m now an elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCA). The commandments guide me. The Lord said, “Thou shalt not murder.” What does that mean on the positive side? It means that we should protect life at all stages, from conception through to natural death. It is not our job to decide when a person lives or dies.

How are you challenging California’s Proposition 71, which provides for three billion dollars of bond funding of human embryonic stem cell research?

I agree with Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum who said, “I am all for stem cell research as long as it doesn’t kill the donor”, but that is what happens in human embryonic stem cell research. Contrasted with embryonic stem cell research, there are immediate cures coming from adult stem cell research (which does not kill the donor) and that is where the focus should be. Four of us are working pro bono on this case for LLDF. Our legal challenge is not an ethical argument, however, but a challenge on the constitutionality of the proposition. Article 3, Section 16 of the state constitution says all expenditures from the state treasury must be under the exclusive management and control of the state, and that is not the case in Proposition 71. The scheme behind the proposition establishes a dangerous precedent in which a wealthy individual with an idea for some project that he believes will benefit the state spends a million or two of seed money to put a multi-billion dollar bond or tax issue on the ballot, and then spends another few million to advertise in support of it, and then has himself named chairman of the board that oversees the distribution of the billions of dollars of taxpayer money outside the exclusive control of the state. One example of this is the special tobacco tax that California voters passed, and another is the preschool proposition rejected in the June election. You or I may actually agree with the ideas behind some of these propositions, but using the taxpayers’ money for them is wrong. Proposition 71, also passed by the voters, provides for an “Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee” to control distribution of the three billion dollars in bond funds. We are suing the independent committee, which is aptly named! It is so independent that committee members may only be removed by judicial action, and only if the law has been broken. Simple ineptness or poor performance by a committee member would not be reason for removal. The executive and legislative branches of state government have almost no power in this situation. Further— the proposition can’t be amended by the legislature for the first three years, except by a 70 percent majority vote of both houses of the legislature, that is almost impossible to attain. Even though the proposition decreases the power of the state, state officials are defending it and the Attorney General is our opponent in the case. An appeal has just been filed and whoever loses that will appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Your first career was in engineering. When and why did you become an attorney?

In the 1990s I became interested in politics and in the Constitution and decided to try to audit a course at a local law school. They said that wasn’t possible—I would have to enroll. So I took the LSAT, registered and one thing led to another. Four years later, at the age of sixty, I took the bar exam and passed. Being an attorney had always been in the back of my mind. I could not have attended law school at night while also working full-time without the support of my wife. She made sure we always ate dinner together—even at 10:30 p.m. She not only supported my interest but also saw the law degree as a great asset in pro-life work.

What would you say to an attorney considering volunteering for pro-life work?

Jump in! We need you! Life is a spiritual battle and you need to be part of God’s army. It’s tremendously rewarding. There is nothing better than the real peace that comes of being in God’s will. It is satisfying to volunteer for an organization like Life Legal because LLDF will defend the little guy. Yes, LLDF has very skilled lawyers who will handle cases of national interest and cases that may set legal precedent, but unlike some other nonprofits they also will go to bat for those who others won’t defend. It is a real strength of LLDF.