Judge Curtis L. Collier

2015 Professionalism Award for the Sixth Circuit

When Curtis L. Collier was growing up in the cotton country of Lee County, Arkansas, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he didn’t have many African American professional role models for his future career: There were about five black lawyers in the state, he estimates. Despite their own lack of post-secondary education, his laborer father and homemaker mother raised their nine children with high expectations for educational achievement. Collier’s two older siblings had gone to college, and the assumption was that he would do the same. Although well prepared for his degree program in Chemistry at Tennessee State University, Collier had not shared a classroom with a white student until he was 16 years old.

Math, chemistry, and physics had always made sense to Collier, and he wanted to be a scientist. But the solitary life of laboratory experimentation wasn’t for him, as a summer job at Procter & Gamble made plain. “It was very isolating, with virtually no human contact,” he says. A visit to the company’s legal department revealed the field of patent law, which appealed to Collier’s technical side. An Air Force ROTC scholarship recipient at Tennessee State, he deferred active military duty to attend Duke University law school, earning his J.D. in 1974.

There were few African American role models at Duke either. There were six black students in Collier’s class, including the first three women to matriculate at Duke Law. There were no black professors. Collier describes his as a “typical tough law school experience,” but says that he “did not grow up expecting fairness” and “expected to overcome obstacles.”

In November 1974, Collier entered active duty in the U.S. Air Force as a captain in the Judge Advocate General’s department. He served two years at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, where most of the legal work consisted of contracts and claims: “I didn’t really enjoy it. There wasn’t much military justice,” he says. Next, Collier spent two years at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where he served as Chief of Civil Law.

A particular court martial that stands out in his memory is that of Sergeant James Scott, a decorated hero who had saved a woman and her children from a house fire. However, Scott, a military policeman charged with investigating crimes, took it upon himself to punish Filipino locals he suspected of theft. Sadly, conduct that would not have been condoned in the United States at that time wasn’t unusual among members of the U.S. military serving abroad, says Collier: “Featuring large numbers of young, single men with money, foreign posts would have a corrosive effect on people’s morals.” Collier viewed the prosecution of Sgt. Scott as serving as an example. “We must have and must communicate standards. People must understand them and the consequences of not upholding them,” he says.

Following his separation from active duty, Collier joined the U.S. Justice Department as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1979 in the New Orleans office, where he worked initially in the General Crimes Unit; he also worked in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the Chattanooga Branch Office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Collier supervised a staff of seven attorneys and six legal secretaries.

In early 1995, Collier’s career took a turn as he was nominated by President William Jefferson Clinton as a U.S. District Judge in the Eastern District of Tennessee. Some might even say it was unexpected:

“I have always had the greatest respect for federal judges, but didn’t really aspire to or envision myself in that role,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the support for my application; apparently my colleagues saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” Collier served as chief judge of the court from 2005 to 2012.

Collier is a founding member of the Justices Ray L. Brock, Jr.–Robert E. Cooper American Inn of Court in Chattanooga which, at Collier’s suggestion, distributes printed cards stressing the importance of professionalism, respect, and courtesy to each new member of the Inn.

“I find it frustrating when I see lawyers not performing up to standard. We have a unique and special opportunity as lubricants that make society flow,” he says. “We must look out for the interests of our clients and society as a whole, and must treat our opponents as well as we can. But that can be easy to forget; that’s why we need the American Inns of Court.”

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in McLean Virginia.

© 2015 American Inns of Court. This article was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.