published Sunday, May 11th, 2014

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier has traveled a long road (wih audio)

Audio clip

Judge Curtis Collier

In the Lee County, Ark., of the 1950s, grown black men and women were expected to call white children Sir or Miss.

Cotton was king and the alluvial soil of the baking fields was where nearly every working-class person toiled.

Half the county’s 24,000 residents were black. Many lived in tar-paper shacks or small, wood-frame houses.

Most of the black residents of Lee County were descendants of slaves brought in once the forests had been cleared for planting. And life, at least the social order, wasn’t very different from what it had been a century before.

At age 8, Curtis Collier started his days in the fields carrying water to thirsty workers.

When he turned 12 he began picking and chopping cotton.

It is a time and a place, Collier said, that “doesn’t exist anymore.”

Despite being barred from even the most basic of opportunities, this third child of nine, who sometimes went to bed hungry and bone-tired, labored over books and soaked up the words his teachers shared, building knowledge one page, one class, at a time.

He studied chemistry at Tennessee State University, which led to service in the U.S. Air Force. That carried him to law school at Duke University, then to a job as a federal prosecutor and later to his most recent position.

The young boy who saw the men and women of his world forced to step aside for a white person walking on the sidewalk, who called white children Mister or Miss, has carried his own title for the past two decades, one he will hold for the rest of his life: Your Honor.

This past week, U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier announced he will head into semi-retirement in October, known as “senior status.”

His story, said his former boss, retired U.S. Attorney John Gill, “is the true American dream.”

  • photo
    Judge Curtis Collier presides over a naturalization ceremony in this 2009 file photo. Collier has announced plans to take senior status this fall.
    enlarge photo

•••

Collier wasn’t drawn to law until he’d nearly finished his undergraduate work in science. He was working an internship with Procter & Gamble, researching ways to prevent or repair split ends in hair, when a friend said he was going to tour the company’s patent law division.

Collier realized that on a good day he saw maybe three people while doing his research. Since he was already something of an introvert, he thought maybe he should look at another field.

Patent law is among the most highly technical and specialized areas of law, but Collier figured he could use his scientific background so he returned to finish his studies and began applying to law schools.

That was 1971. He was obligated to serve four years in the Air Force, which had paid for his degree. But that service was postponed for him to complete a law degree at Duke University.

Three years later he had graduated but didn’t go to the ceremony and nearly skipped his official swearing-in.

His father, Lenzora, and mother, Lucille, would have none of it. Taking a rare break from work, the two drove to Little Rock, Ark., to watch their son raise his hand and join the legal ranks.

Collier stepped into military service as a Judge Advocate General officer. He worked at Robbins Air Force Base in central Georgia where he met his wife, Cheryl. They traveled to the Philippines where the young lawyer started getting work in the courtroom, trying criminal cases where service members were illegally selling items off base. He later worked on a case in the North-South Korea demilitarized zone in which soldiers had been hacked to death.

Eventually he decided to leave the service and return to the South. In 1979 he got a job as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans, La.

Later he applied for a post with the federal prosecutor in Nashville but another Tennessee city would be where he’d land. He’d never heard of Chattanooga until his boss in New Orleans spoke with Gill, who oversaw Tennessee’s Eastern District from 1981 until 1991.

Gill brought Collier in to supervise the Chattanooga office in 1987.

Three years later another judge position was added to the federal court in Chattanooga.

It wouldn’t be filled until 1995, when President Bill Clinton appointed Collier to the bench. He is still the only black district court judge to serve in Tennessee’s Eastern District.

•••

Collier presides in the courtroom where Jimmy Hoffa was convicted. Above him hangs a Depression-era mural titled “Allegory of Chattanooga” depicting the history of Tennessee with a dead Confederate soldier and a slave.

The judge sits silently in hearings and trials, his eyes flitting behind bifocals to read documents on his desk or computer screen. With little perceptible movement, his gaze will rise to meet that of the person at the podium before him.

He rarely interjects as lawyers comment and question. When he speaks, he does not raise his voice. When he questions attorneys, there is a gentle chiding, sometimes a short lesson in why he will not yield to their “strenuous objection.”

But unfailingly, Collier delivers these lessons in sharp, clipped language, never a ramble and always ending with a small smile.

•••

Federal courts handle fraud cases, public corruption charges, companies that sue each other, civil rights cases and many, many drug cases.

Collier saw the effects of drug addiction slam his hometown of Marianna, Ark., in the decades after he left.

He said crack cocaine was the first drug to penetrate the better sections of communities, destroying in a short period of time the wealth, pride and families that had come up from abject poverty to make something worth keeping.

Many of his childhood friends ruined their lives using crack. One became addicted, ended up homeless on the streets of Little Rock and was beaten to death by a group of young men a few years ago.

Much of the judge’s work in drug cases has been to apply guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — until recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and shifts in drug sentencing by President Barack Obama.

At times the people standing before Collier were young single mothers who’d been addicted to drugs but had come out of that life only to get pulled back in or trip up on a somewhat minor offense and face harsh sentences.

“I don’t know of a single federal judge who thinks that mandatory minimum sentences are a good idea,” Collier said. “When you do have something that the law requires that you don’t like, you go home and it stays with you. You cannot write letters to the editor, you cannot contact your senator …”

But the individual opinion of the judge should carry little weight in what happens in the courtroom, he said.

“The position of a judge belongs to the people,” Collier said. “They ask that person to take an oath and that oath includes a promise to faithfully obey and execute the laws.”

Those who lose civil lawsuits pay millions of dollars to their opposition when ordered. People facing lengthy sentences allowed to remain free on bond show up for their trials, usually on their own.

They do that, Collier said, because they have confidence in the court system.

That confidence rests with the judge and how he or she applies the law.

A man he never met but who yet inspires him was U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson. Johnson, a native Alabamian, ruled on crucial cases during the civil rights era in Alabama.

He was not popular among his neighbors.

“He ruled against Alabama in many cases, not just one,” Collier said.

There were threats. Johnson’s children couldn’t go to public school. He and his family were cut off from the community.

“He followed the Constitution and did what the law required even though he did so at tremendous personal sacrifice,” Collier said.

•••

When talking about memorable cases over which he has presided, Collier didn’t cite the 2008 death penalty sentence for Rejon Taylor, a Chattanooga man who kidnapped an Atlanta man, brought him across state lines and killed him.

He didn’t talk about a fraud and money-laundering case involving $40 million in losses to nearly a dozen banks caught up in a Dade County, Ga., land deal.

He didn’t mention civil rights, corruption or other newsworthy cases.

Collier talked about one few would remember.

A young, single mother living in local public housing had a son who’d been bitten by a rat in the home.

She filed a lawsuit no lawyer would take against public housing.

The woman arrived alone to a meeting with the judge and perhaps five lawyers for the city of Chattanooga.

“And the woman is in tears,” Collier recalled.

It was obvious to the judge that this woman of meager means and little education would not be able to fight and win a case against the lawyers.

And something human emerged, something the courts sometimes do that garners little attention.

“She’s really not all that concerned about money,” Collier said. “She just wants somebody to recognize her child has been done wrong and to apologize for it.”

Collier turned to the attorneys. Would an official apology be possible? Yes.

Would a small amount of money, maybe $5,000, be acceptable to help pay medical expenses and help this person in poverty? Yes.

•••

On the occasion of his retirement, the judge recalled an early career lesson. He was in Washington, D.C., at an event for military attorneys. He and other 20-something lawyers tried to strike a conversation with a near-retired colonel. All the officer could do was talk about work.

“He could not talk about current events, movies, music, news,” Collier said. “He’d become so wrapped up in his work that his work became him. That’s a danger because if you live long enough, you’re not going to be in that job forever and when that job ends … what do you do?”

Collier turns 65 in October. He has two grandchildren, ages 3 and 8, who live within driving distance.

Though he’ll still carry a caseload, albeit a much lighter one, he will be seeing them whenever he can. Taking those children to museums, events, and traveling to places he once could only dream of while bent over in the hot Arkansas sun, picking cotton.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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