Remembering D.C. Court of Appeals Judge John A. Terry
September 17, 2021
Judge John A. Terry, who served on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals for more than three decades, passed away on September 5 at age 88.
Judge Terry was appointed associate judge of the court by President Reagan in 1982, taking senior status in 2006 and retiring in 2016. In a 2011 oral history interview with the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Terry estimated that he’d published approximately 850 opinions during his time on the bench.
Some of his most memorable opinions included a D.C. Court of Appeals 6–3 decision in 1987 that children can sue their parents for negligence. In the 13-page majority opinion, Judge Terry argued that the then strongly held “parental immunity” had no place in modern society, calling it a “vestige of an era in which children were without legal protection from the wrongs of their parents.”
When asked about the most satisfying element of being a judge, Terry said, “I just like to be able to feel that I’m contributing to the body of the law somehow, and I know that some of my opinions are cited as good precedents. Because I see them cited not only in our own opinions but elsewhere as some of my law clerks have told me that they’ve read them in case books in law school, which makes me feel quite good.”
Born on May 6, 1933, in Utica, New York, Terry grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduating from John Burroughs School, a private, non-sectarian college preparatory school, he attended Yale University, where he earned his bachelor of arts degree (magna cum laude) in English in 1954. Soon after, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the Library of Congress, and then as a research assistant with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field, in which Robert Kennedy served as chief counsel.
It was during this time that Terry decided to pursue a legal career. In 1957 he enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center, where he was on the board of editors of the Georgetown Law Journal.
Terry worked with the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations from 1960 to 1962, when he became an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Serving in that capacity until 1967, he tried cases in what was then called the Court of General Sessions (now a part of D.C. Superior Court), then in the Appellate Division under Frank Nebeker and in the Felony Trial Unit in the Federal District Court.
For a brief time, Terry worked as a staff attorney at the National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws before launching into private practice in Washington, D.C., with John Bennison between 1968 and 1969. Terry became chief of the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in 1969 and served in that role until 1982.
While chief of the Appellate Division, one of Terry’s cases, Doe v. McMillian, went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involved the then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the District of Columbia, which published a report about the D.C. school system, including test papers of several students intended to show how poorly educated they were. In turn, some of those students sued the chairman, seeking damages and declaratory and injunctive relief for invasion of privacy.
“The then-chief of the civil division handled the case in the trial court; argued it . . . which he won, representing the congressman and the other government officials, and then I did it on appeal, and I prevailed on appeal, and then they took it to Supreme Court; Supreme Court reversed five-to-four in part,” Terry said in the 2011 interview with the Historical Society.
Another memorable case for Terry during his tenure as chief of the Appellate Division was United States v. Jeff Fort, involving a leader of the Chicago-based Almighty Black P. Stone Nation, who was subpoenaed to testify before a Senate committee and later convicted of contempt of Congress after walking out of the committee hearings investigating misuse of federal funds for a job training project to prevent local gang violence.
Regina McGranery, who served for 30 years as an administrative appeals judge on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board, viewed Terry as both a judicial mentor and as a role model when she worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In addition to his warm demeanor, she applauded Terry’s writing expertise. “John was a magnificent writer,” McGranery said. “As [brief] writers, he encouraged us to avoid legalese, [and] to write in such a way that the parties, who are not lawyers, could understand what you were saying. I took that to heart. He also encouraged us to write concisely and to argue logically.”
Judge Terry was one of the original members of the Advisory Committee on Procedures of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when it was established in the mid-1970s. Judge Terry also served as a member of the D.C. Bar Board of Governors from 1977 to 1982.
Shortly after his death, Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby of the D.C. Court of Appeals stated in a media release, “Judge Terry was a big part of the history and culture of the D.C. Court of Appeals, both as an associate judge and a senior judge. He was a beloved friend and a thoughtful and considerate colleague and made many lasting contributions to the court and to the District of Columbia. We are deeply saddened by his loss.”
“A rock of integrity” is how Earl Silbert, who worked alongside Terry in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, described his colleague. “John [also] had a comprehensive, in-depth knowledge of the D.C. law, particularly in the criminal area, which was extraordinarily invaluable to the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a litigator. As a judge, he was someone who tried to take the most reasonable, fair, professional, comprehensive analysis of the law and applied [it] to a changing and growing populous and the legal community.”
Judge Terry was a lifelong devotee of opera, theater, and classical music, and he was a longstanding member of the Washington Men’s Camerata choral group. He also enjoyed travel and considered Paris his second home.
A memorial service at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where Judge Terry worshipped, is planned for the future in light of Covid-19.
The image above is courtesy of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.