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L.A. judge shares her unusual story

Not long after Audrey B. Collins was named chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, she found herself pondering what she might say at an upcoming luncheon, the sort of affair she’d routinely be expected to attend in her new capacity as the public face of the court.

But as Collins considered her remarks, she realized there was nothing routine about this gathering. She’d been asked to speak to a group of female Afghan attorneys and judges visiting the United States, women who risked their lives every day by practicing law in defiance of the Taliban.

The standard fare for lunchtime speeches, such as court statistics, judicial vacancies and cost-of-living increases for federal judges, wasn’t going to cut it with this crowd, Collins concluded.

So she decided to tell her own story, one that makes her, in at least one respect, a highly unusual member of the federal judiciary: Collins, 63, is the granddaughter of a slave.

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With the help of her administrative law clerk, the judge put together a slide show detailing her family history intertwined with images from the civil rights movement. Collins said she intended to inspire the Afghan attorneys to persevere.

“They don’t need courage. They’ve got plenty of that,” Collins said. “I wanted to give them some hope.”

Collins takes over as chief judge as the number of criminal prosecutions by the U.S. attorney’s office is rising and there are several judicial vacancies to be filled. She also inherits the years-long struggle to secure funding for a new federal courthouse that would put all of the judges and court staff in downtown Los Angeles under one roof.

Collins was born in 1945 in Chester, Pa. Both her father and grandfather waited until later in life to have children, which accounts for her being only two generations removed from slavery. After being freed sometime around the 1860s, her grandfather worked his way through elementary school and high school. He then was ordained as a minister.

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Her father was a dentist who built a community-oriented practice in Chester, a hardscrabble town west of Philadelphia. Though professional success offered some buffer from racism, it was not complete. The judge recalled, as a young girl, excitedly coming home to a new house in a neighborhood where hers was the first black family.

When they opened the front door, they saw that someone had broken in, plugged the sinks and bathtub, turned on the water and flooded the place.

“I have this image of my father wading through the basement,” said Collins, who was 5 at the time. “I was just shocked that anyone would do this on purpose.”

Despite coming of age in the civil rights era and attending a historically black college in Washington, D.C., Collins said she did not become particularly involved in the struggle. Instead, she focused on her studies.

She graduated from Howard University in 1967 with a degree in political science. Two years later, she earned a master’s in government from American University, followed by a law degree from UCLA.

After a brief stint with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, she was hired by then-Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp and began what would become a 16-year career as a prosecutor.

Collins was named a special advisor to the Los Angeles Police Commission in the wake of the 1992 riots. Two years later, President Clinton appointed her to the federal bench.

Collins made headlines five year ago when she became the first judge to declare a part of the 9/11-inspired Patriot Act unconstitutional. She ruled that language in the act making it illegal to give “expert advice or assistance” to a foreign terrorist organization was so vague that “it could be construed to include unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the 1st Amendment.”

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The judge was in the news again last summer when she issued a preliminary injunction blocking the city attorney’s office from prosecuting companies that draped giant multi-story vinyl signs across the front of buildings in violation of the city’s billboard ban. In ordering the temporary halt to prosecutions, Collins found that the companies that put up the signs had a good chance of prevailing in a pending lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the ban.

Collins is married to Dr. Tim Collins, the dental director for Los Angeles County. They have two grown children: one an actress, dancer and singer, the other an attorney.

Petite and soft-spoken, Collins has a reputation for being thorough and deliberate, fairly standard characteristics in her line of work. But she’s also described as unfailingly polite, even nice -- by no means a description befitting all of her colleagues on the bench.

Judge Christina A. Snyder, a friend of Collins for many years, recalled being approached by a neighbor who’d served as a juror in Collins’ court.

The woman described the experience as a “delight,” saying that Collins was as attentive to the jury as she was to the attorneys trying the case.

A bookshelf in her chambers in the Roybal Federal Building contains a variety of non-law-related titles. There is a nonfiction book about a serial killer operating in Chicago during the run-up to the 1893 World’s Fair, an assortment of whodunits and several books by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, whose novels typically deliver a pro-environmental or social-justice message wrapped in a wacky tale about life in South Florida.

Collins said such light reading is for lunchtime, when she needs a break from the denser material that consumes most of her mornings.

As chief judge, Collins will be expected to juggle administrative and ceremonial duties with her already busy courtroom docket. In addition to luncheons and other speaking engagements, she’ll chair several court committees, and she may occasionally be asked to testify before Congress about matters in the Central District of California, a seven-county jurisdiction with more residents than any in the nation.

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Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler, who passed the gavel to Collins last month after serving as chief for a little over three years, said the position can be consuming. The chief, she said, is responsible not only for his or her own courtroom, but for those of every other judge and for more than 1,000 court employees as well.

“You’re the chief deflector, the chief worrier and the chief overseer,” Stotler said. “You’re like a big mother hen.”

Collins sees her term as chief as much a duty as an honor. She smiled as she described the aligning stars that resulted in her being handed the gavel: “Well,” she said, “I’m the next most senior active judge who hasn’t passed age 65.”

During her tenure she’ll oversee a pilot program in which magistrate judges, those below presidentially appointed district judges in the federal system, will begin hearing civil cases. The program is designed to give magistrates, who typically deal with routine pretrial matters in criminal court, an opportunity to do something different. It also is intended to ease the workload of the 25 district judges who are three short of their authorized strength and, according to one study, eight short of what their total should be.

Which calls to mind another issue Collins and other chief judges across the country are facing: recruitment and retention.

Federal judges make about $170,000 a year, which might sound great to many Americans.

But they earn that salary whether they work in Manhattan or Memphis, and they haven’t received cost-of-living adjustments in seven of the last 15 years. Their salaries used to be comparable to those of deans at top-flight law schools, but they now make about what some big firms pay first-year associates.

Anecdotally, Collins and others believe, the perception of heavy caseloads and stagnant pay has resulted in judges’ stepping down to pursue more lucrative careers and discouraged top candidates from becoming judges in the first place.

But you won’t hear Collins complaining.

“I feel like I get to come to work every day and do what’s right,” she said.

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scott.glover@latimes.com


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