By Adrianna Pitrelli Law Bulletin staff writer
Quit the firm or quit the case.
That’s what Thomas Brejcha was told after his firm decided it could no longer bear the huge financial burden of a case Brejcha had been litigating for nearly a decade.
Brejcha didn’t think twice. He walked away from the firm to, in his words, “continue defending the rights of pro-lifers” by starting his own organization. Twenty years later, that organization — The Thomas More Society — is still going strong with more than a dozen attorneys and a present caseload of nearly 90 cases.
Andrew M. Bath, executive vice president and general counsel for the Thomas More Society, said there’s plenty of achievements to commemorate.
“We want to celebrate a visionary man, Tom Brejcha, who was audacious enough that he thought he could take on a goliath-sized opponent himself and survive a case that lasted more than 20 years and went to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals four times and went to the Supreme Court three times.”
In 1986, Joe Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League found themselves in court after the National Organization for Women sued them, alleging they were using violence or threats of violence by blocking the entrance to abortion-conducting facilities.
The suit came because Scheidler was one of many anti-abortion advocates who went to clinics to talk women out of getting abortions and persuade doctors and medical staff to quit that practice.
Initially, the charge against the abortion opponents was that they were “conspiring in restraint of interest commerce” by trying to talk women out of abortions and suppressing clinics, in violation of federal antitrust laws. But those charges soon grew when Scheidler was accused of violating the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — a statute that intended to prosecute members of the Mafia.
When the allegations expanded, that’s when Scheidler said he knew he needed help, and when he was introduced to Brejcha.
“When we first met, I asked him what he thought about the case, and he said, ‘I can win it,’” Scheidler said of Brejcha. “That impressed me. The way he confidently told me, ‘I win cases.’”
Because of Brejcha’s experience in several U.S. Supreme Court appeals in business cases, he became lead counsel on the suit. He did not know at the time he would be committing to a case that would last more than 25 years.
Ten years in, Brejcha’s firm decided it didn’t want him to continue to handle the case pro bono.
Brejcha quit the firm and set up a nonprofit, organization to gather donations from people throughout the country to support the efforts to defend abortion opponents in court.
The Thomas More Society was born.
“That’s how we got started — by force of necessity and sheer economics,” Brejcha said.
But working on his own wasn’t easy.
“Tom then was in an abandoned building, where we had to get him a heater in the winter and air conditioning in the summer,” Scheidler said. “He spent a year or two in very dire conditions, but he built up a lot of other cases because people saw how good he was.”
The case, NOW v. Scheidler, made its way before the Supreme Court three times — and Scheidler won the final two appeals in 2003 and 2006, which he credits to Brejcha’s commitment.
The initial case revolving around RICO charges was decided against Scheidler in 1994.
“Without Tom’s determination and without going back to the court and staying with us for 27 years and quitting his job to go for the pro bono work, I don’t know what would have happened,” Scheidler said. “I consider him a hero. I just think the world of Tom.”
Scheidler said winning the final case changed and expanded anti-abortion initiatives throughout the country.
While defending Scheidler, the society also provided assistance to a number of other religious conservative causes, including helping draft a bill in Iowa that imposes a three-day waiting period for abortions and advocating for organizations that faced resistance to public Nativity scenes.
As the group celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year, it had nearly 90 cases on court dockets across the country and is providing consultation and assistance to a number of groups.
One client, Texas-based Sidewalk Advocates for Life, is a group that trains volunteers to engage with women headed to abortion clinics and present them with other options. It has used the help of the Thomas More Society since its start in 2014.
The group has a local chapter in Wood Dale.
“There are so many folks that simply don’t like what we are doing because maybe they don’t agree with our particular viewpoint, and we do experience viewpoint discrimination unfortunately,” Lauren Muzyka, executive director of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, said.
When Sidewalk Advocates for Life has run into problems with government and law enforcement, it has called on the society to make their case for free speech in at least 15 matters, none of which have reached litigation.
“It’s just very heartening to us to see a great public interest law firm, like the Thomas More Society, lending their help, pro bono,” Muzyka said. “Because of that, our folks are able to help a lot of women that do want help. We’ve had almost 5,000 women change their minds in four years.”
Muzyka, a lawyer herself, credits the professionalism and dedication of Thomas More’s attorneys for the organization’s success.
“I think that the values of the Thomas More Society and the values they share with everyone else comes through in the way they serve their clients,” Muzyka said. “We are so elated to have an organization like this that comes to the defense of folks who otherwise could not find great legal help when they are dealing with these situations.”
The society also campaigns and advocates for students at public schools to have the right to start “pro-life” clubs. And it’s working with a Minnesota parent who is suing their home county, the school district and social services groups for providing her son with sex reassignment services without her consent.
The Thomas More Society has been defending abortion opponents for 20 years, and Bath said they’re looking forward to the next 20 years.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had as many cases as we do now. My phone never stops ringing because the need is so great,” he said.
Bath said as the movement continues to succeed in reducing the number of abortions, he expects pro-abortion advocates will start fighting even harder to survive.
“If pro-lifers and women choose to not have abortions, I think there is going to be a lot of different challenges as the laws change and the techniques of the sidewalk counselors change, and we’re going to be standing behind them. We’re going to be there for them,” Bath said.