By Alan Burke
---- — SALEM — It’s like something out of fiction — the local lawyer who labors tirelessly for a deeply held cause finally gets a chance to fight for it on the biggest stage of all, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Salem attorney Philip Moran has been arguing and lobbying in opposition to laws allowing abortion for more than 40 years. Now his concern for that issue will send him to the table opposite the justices of the Supreme Court.
Moran, a lawyer for 45 years, will join a team asserting that Massachusetts violates the rights of anti-abortion protesters when it bars them from getting any closer to an abortion facility than 35 feet.
“My guesstimate is that our oral argument will be heard in December or January,” he says.
Catholic University law professor Mark Rienzi is expected to do the arguing, with Moran at his side, ready to assist or step in if needed. It will be his second visit to the court — last time he was a spectator.
“Rienzi has a half-hour to argue,” says Moran, with the commonwealth allowed a half-hour rebuttal.
It isn’t surprising his colleague is linked to Catholic University, since Moran’s own Catholic background is a factor in his longtime efforts opposing abortion.
He cannot recall a time when he did not have these views. They may have been communicated from his parents, he suggests, or by teachers at St. Mary’s Boys High School in Lynn, or at Holy Cross, where he earned his undergraduate degree. (Moran later bypassed the family insurance business to attend Suffolk University Law at night. His practice now revolves around estate planning and elder law.)
There was no moment, no epiphany leading him to the culture wars. As a founding member of Mass Citizens for Life in 1973, a member of the Pro-Life Legal Defense Fund and the National Right to Life Committee, it’s so much a part of him that he’s a bit at a loss to offer an explanation deeper than, “I believe life begins at conception.”
Pressed, he cites his experience as a high-schooler reading Henry Morton Robinson’s “The Cardinal,” which includes a subplot involving a proposed abortion to save the life of the mother. “It’s a very interesting book,” he says.
In the story, a priest, rising to become a prince of the church, follows church teaching in making an agonizing decision in favor of his sister’s unborn child. His sister dies.
“I can’t recall if I agreed or disagreed,” Moran says, adding that these days he is comfortable with laws giving priority to the mother. He worries, however, that vague provisions for the “health” of the mother are too often a dodge.
For Moran, however, the issue at hand is not abortion, but free speech. Moran cites a state law passed in 2000 that established a “25-foot fixed buffer zone” and a “6-foot floating zone” aimed at keeping protesters at a distance from clinic entrances. That law followed a fatal attack by gunman John Salvi in 1996 on a Brookline Planned Parenthood clinic, where he killed two women.
According to Moran, the 2000 law worked well. The distance still gave anti-abortion activists enough reach to hand out materials to women approaching abortion clinics, “to make eye contact ... to speak in a conversational tone.”
“Never once was anyone arrested or convicted for violating the law,” he says. Nor will any buffer zone stop a John Salvi, he adds.
In 2007, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a new law creating a larger, 35-foot buffer zone.
“It’s probably the most restrictive buffer zone in the United States,” says Moran.
This law was challenged twice, losing each time before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro. And that was supposed to be the end of it until the Supreme Court surprised some by agreeing to hear arguments.
“We feel very positive,” says Moran.
Married for 50 years, Moran and his wife, Carol, enjoy a home looking out on Salem Harbor. A daughter, Maura, married a British citizen and lives in Oxford, England, where she helped create a biography of Margaret Thatcher for Oxford University Press. Son David lives in Gloucester and sells Hondas.
In 2011, Moran made unwanted headlines after the Board of Bar Overseers suspended his license for two months for pressuring a client to loan him $15,000 and writing himself into the man’s will.
“I agreed to serve a two-month suspension, and life goes on,” he says.
He nods when asked if his activism on abortion and other causes has made him a target.
“I do occasionally get nasty letters, nasty phone calls, nasty emails,” he says.
Asked if he gets discouraged as church doctrine and traditional morality seem to be in retreat, with widespread acceptance of abortion, gay marriage and even assisted suicide, he smiles.
“I’m persistent,” he says. “Persistence is to success as carbon is to steel.”
Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at email@example.com