After his official retirement from the D.C. appellate bench, Judge Terry became a senior judge and continued to review legal appeals until full retirement in 2016. During his years as an appellate judge, he published more than 800 opinions, and he wrote another 800 opinions that were not published, he told the Historical Society of the District of Columbia in a 2011 interview.
One of the more memorable of these, cited on the webpage of the D.C. Bar, was a 6-to-3 1987 decision that children could sue their parents for negligence. Writing for the majority, Judge Terry noted that “parental immunity” had no place in modern society. He called it a “vestige of an era in which children were without legal protection from the wrongs of their parents.”
In a stinging dissent, Appellate Judge Frank Q. Nebeker accused his judicial colleagues of “tinkering with the already fragile family structure. ... It is an intruder into any family circle as much as any burglar or disease.”
Judge Terry was chief of the appellate division of the U.S. attorney’s office from 1969 to 1982. During that time, he defended Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), the powerful chairman of the House District of Columbia Committee, from accusations in a lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy.
The suit was filed on behalf of students in D.C. schools whose test papers had been published in an effort by the committee to show how poorly educated they had been. Judge Terry prevailed at the appellate level, but the case went to the Supreme Court, which held in 1973 that McMillan, members of Congress and congressional employees were constitutionally protected against such lawsuits, as the future judge had argued.
John Alfred Terry was born in Utica, N.Y., on May 6, 1933, and grew up in St. Louis. His father was a salesman, and his mother was a teacher and journalist.
As a child, he was seriously injured in a fall, which led to a year in bed to recover. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp that grew more pronounced as he aged. Friends said he never complained.
He passed his time during his convalescence by listening to music on the radio, acquiring a love for music and song, especially opera, that would last a lifetime. He sang for years in the choral group Washington Men’s Camerata.
He graduated from Yale University in 1954, then moved to Washington and a few years later was hired by Robert F. Kennedy, who was then chief counsel to a select committee investing corruption in labor unions, especially the Teamsters union led by Jimmy Hoffa.
While working days for the committee, the future judge attended night classes at Georgetown University Law School, where he graduated in 1960. In 1962 he began working at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.
Both as a supervisor in the U.S. attorney’s office and later on the appellate bench, Judge Terry had a reputation as a demanding and meticulous editor, with a fierce attention to detail, who always had a box of red pencils at the ready when a draft of a legal document or opinion came across his desk.
Invariably it went back to the sender, marked liberally in red with suggestions, questions and ideas for change. In his office he was said to have kept a box of used red-pencil caps as one way of keeping score.
Judge Terry never married and had no immediate survivors. He was a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington and was a former chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s task force on disciplinary canons.