Judge Curtis Collier's semi-retirement will open prestigious seat in Chattanooga

Judge Curtis Collier's semi-retirement will open prestigious seat in Chattanooga

May 6th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Judge Curtis Collier speaks to students visiting his courtroom at the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building in 2008.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Curtis L. Collier, who rose from humble beginnings in the poverty-ridden Mississippi Delta region of rural Arkansas during the 1950s era of segregation to become the first and only black U.S. district judge in eastern Tennessee, will move into semi-retirement in October.

Collier sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week announcing his senior status to take effect on his 65th birthday. In doing so, the judge opened up the prestigious and highly sought-after position to what will likely be a lengthy process involving Democratic congressmen, Tennessee's Republican U.S. senators and the White House.

Potential hopefuls for the position already are being mentioned.

Collier and U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice hold the top judicial positions in Hamilton County, presidential lifetime appointments confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Collier is one of only six federal judges who have lived in Chattanooga while serving here since the local seat was created in 1939. He has served for nearly 20 years.

Approaching his 65th birthday after four decades in public service as a judge advocate general officer in the U.S. Air Force, a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Justice Department and a federal judge for two decades, Collier gave a simple reason for the timing of his announcement.

"It's time to give someone more young and vigorous an opportunity," he said.

Mattice said he had respected Collier since he tried cases before him as U.S. attorney here before becoming a federal judge himself in 2005.

"I've always considered him a model of what a federal judge should be," Mattice said.

Senior status means Collier will move into more of a part-time role. Judges typically take about 20 percent of their normal caseload when in that status and sometimes sit in when other judges must recuse themselves.

His seat was added in Chattanooga in 1990 when then-U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar had served as the sole such judge here since 1985. But the seat remained vacant until Collier's appointment by then-President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Collier was the first and remains the only black federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The district stretches from Greeneville to Winchester with offices there, here and in Knoxville.

Bob Corker

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Monday that he wanted to "take this opportunity to thank Judge Collier for his years of honorable service to Tennesseans, and I wish him the very best in his retirement."

Though Corker will play a crucial role in determining who replaces Collier, he declined to comment about any potential nominees.

Local sources in the Chattanooga legal community have confirmed the names of at least five people interested in the job:

• Celeste Creswell, private practice civil attorney with the Miller and Martin law firm who once clerked for Collier.

• Lee Davis, a former assistant district attorney and private practice civil and criminal defense attorney.

• Leah Gerbitz, private practice civil attorney with Miller and Martin.

• U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee, a former civil attorney and the first female magistrate judge in the eastern district.

• Travis McDonough, former Miller and Martin attorney, now chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

Some sources indicated in recent months that Berke himself might be interested in the position. The mayor denied that when a Times Free Press reporter posed the question last week.

"Absolutely not," Berke said.

Neither McDonough nor Davis could be reached for comment Monday.

When reached at her office Monday afternoon, Lee declined to comment.

Gerbitz said she is interested in the position. She formerly sought an open Hamilton County chancellor position and said she feels she could give back to the community by serving as a judge. Gerbitz said she had communicated her interest but declined to give specifics.

Creswell also said she is interested in the open judgeship but had not communicated her interest yet.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who studies federal judgeships and the appointment process, explained that the presidential appointment will be vetted by the senior Democratic congressman in Tennessee.

That will likely be U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., from Tennessee's 5th District in Middle Tennessee. Cooper's office declined to comment about Collier's announcement.

That was not the process for Mattice, who was the sitting U.S. attorney here before being appointed in 2005. Both senators and then-President George W. Bush were Republicans. Mattice was nominated by then-Sen. Bill Frist.

The next steps in the process for whomever replaces Collier could prove tricky, Tobias said.

Sens. Corker and Lamar Alexander have the authority to essentially veto any presidential nomination before it reaches the Senate for confirmation. That process is done through a 100-year-old process known as the "blue slip."

So long as both senators send their blue slips to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the nominee will move forward for consideration. If one or both do not, then that move could kill the nomination.

Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst political science professor, said because congressional midterm elections are coming in November and both houses take an August recess, it is unlikely a nominee would be named publicly until after the mid-term.

Since the upcoming elections could give control of the Senate to Republicans, Goldman said Tennessee's senators may decide to wait until after that to give themselves more power in deciding who they will accept as a judge here.

Since Corker is from Chattanooga, he may play a larger role when the time comes for the senators to get involved, Goldman said.

Referring to the senators' input and the potential for failed nominations, Goldman said:

"It is not a transparent process because it could embarrass people," he said.

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