Chief Judge Audrey Collins
“She is the face of the U. S. District Court for the Central District of California
As the chief judge of the nation’s largest federal judiciary, Judge Audrey Collins is the first African American to occupy that office. In addition, Judge Collins has made history throughout her career as a legal scholar. She rose from the district attorney’s office as a deputy district attorney to become a federal judge, a monumental feat in judicial history and the first in the Central District.
Asking Judge Collins about an incident that happened when she was a child–after her family moved into a new neighborhood in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, as the first Black family–started a conversation which explained how she viewed the Civil Rights struggle that was taking place as she matriculated. “The vision I have of my father was my internal vision,” she started, “because I was not at the new home when he went (there), and found that people had stopped up all the faucets and flooded the house; of course later, I saw exactly what that meant.”
During the time she was referring to, her experiences were not that unusual in American history; though listening to Judge Collins relate her story indicated what a remarkable person she is and moreover, what a remarkable jurist she has become. She continued, “I remembered it vividly after all these years … it stuck with me because I knew what the basement looked like it was an eastern home and back East, so it had the full basement.” Born Audrey Brodie in 1945 in Chester, Pennsylvania, to a father late in his life and also a grandfather (who had been a slave and became a minister), afforded her griot-like, verbal experiences of history.
Judge Collins was brought up in a family that was steeped in professional success–besides her grandfather, her father was a dentist and she is married to a dentist (Collins)–and that shielded her somewhat from racism, and it carried over into her college years. ” I was very active in many organizations in college,” she said, “I was not a part of any organized sit-ins or even the takeover of the university later, but I have always considered myself an active member of the community. I was certainly involved in various volunteer activities: in (Washington) D.C., I tried to help the community by teaching, I taught when I first came out here (the Los Angeles area) and I worked for a scholarship fund for low-income and minority students for two years at USC; so I definitely tried to give back to the community.” That was during the time Judge Collins was also attending law school.
In reminiscing about her career and what led her to become a lawyer, Judge Collins said, “I think my mother, had she grown up a little later would’ve been a lawyer and her father would’ve been a lawyer, had his situation been different. He was very brilliant; he went to Norfolk Mission College–where he met my grandmother–and Norfolk Mission College is actually set up by the Presbyterian Church after the Civil War to educate Black children–and it was a good college prep that was very academically oriented–and I think he knew the whole Bible back to back, but he didn’t get a chance to fulfill that (becoming a lawyer).”
Still on the reason she pursued a legal career, Judge Collins continued, “Then my mother was brilliant and she became a teacher and I’ve always admired teaching … and I’ve taught at various times… and she even thought about going to law school after she retired, but did not for various reasons.” She gave a very in-depth and focused reasoning for her career decision. “So when my turn came, I really saw law as a way to give back and frankly, I really intended to be a defense attorney because I saw that as a way to help our community.”
Though becoming a (federal) judge is not too far off the path of a defense attorney; how Judge Collins arrived on the federal bench is a remarkable story by itself. She earned her J.D. (law degree) at the UCLA School of Law in 1977. “There’s a program out at UCLA which all the law schools now have, for you to take some time off and do a little ‘externship’ …. sometimes they call it internship,” she explained, “so I actually ‘externed’ for the federal public defender while I was at UCLA Law School and I went down to Terminal Island, and worked with some of the men there and try to help not on their big appeals but on their smaller petitions of grievances at the prison. And I enjoyed that.”
Continuing, Judge Collins said, “At the end of my second year, I got a job working in the D.A’s office and I actually got that job through one of my professors. He said, ‘you’ve already done something with the defense, now you ought to try both.’ I interviewed and I got that position as a summer law clerk, and once I did that, I loved it because I saw that as a real way to contribute (to the community) for me was working with the victims, who were also overwhelmingly from communities of color. And I much more identified with the victims; this is where I want to come when I graduate and be a prosecutor.”
After her stint in the D.A’s office, Judge Collins changed her career focus and in 1978, she decided, “I think it’s really a great opportunity for affecting change and we didn’t really have any African American prosecutors who had gone through the ranks and had risen up to be administrators at that time.” According to Judge Collins, Johnnie Cochran was assistant D.A. and he was brought in from the outside (private practice), to be in charge of overall units. He was not civil service but several units reported to him including the unit that was investigating any possible wrongdoing by LAPD. “He was very helpful to me,” she remembered, “as a new deputy D.A.; that was the first time I had met Johnnie Cochran.”
“I worked my way up and became head deputy and assistant director and then assistant D.A. one of the three top assistants.” In addition to her career in the D.A.’s office, Judge Collins was also a deputy general counsel, Office of Special Advisor to the LAPD Board of Commissioners in 1992.
Two years later, there were four vacancies for the federal bench, she applied and she was selected by Senator Diane Feinstein to be a U.S. District Court Judge. In January 1994, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton; the U.S. Senate confirmed her in May and three days later, she received her commission and became U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins. (It was very usual; she was the first woman in the Central District to be appointed from the DA’s office.)
A few years ago, after the Patriot Act became controversial, Judge Collins was in the spotlight when she became the first judge to declare a part of the 9/11-inspired Patriot Act unconstitutional. “What was unusual about it was I think that I was the first judge to find any portion of it unconstitutional. You also think you’re not going against the president so much, this is a congressional act; so it’s a piece of legislation. And I think any judge thinks very long and hard and seriously about going against legislation that was passed by the Congress and signed by the president; especially one that was as prominent as that one was at the time.” It was one of those things that made Judge Collins an extraordinary legal scholar.
And to reinforce her modesty, Judge Collins said, “I think what I did was very modest; by no means did the plaintiffs prevail in everything they had asked for in terms of the relief that I granted.” The matter eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court and she commented, “The argument centered on the Ninth Circuit, not mine. I was upheld of all of the specifics… all of the section, I found vague, that was upheld. Now we’ll see what happens.”
Judge Collins has two Brothers; one is an attorney, Bruce Brodie and according to her, “He sort of followed me out here. He is very high up in the alternate public defender’s office. So he’s on the other side to the defense table, but we never actually opposed each other.” (It may have been interesting if deputy DA Collins had bumped heads in the courtroom with deputy or alternate public defender Brodie). “It took awhile before people to realize that he was my brother,” she said, but now everybody knows that we’re brother and sister. And in fact, three years ago, Langston (Bar Association) honored us: I was judge of the year and he was lawyer of the year. It was the first time that Langston honored a brother and a sister.”
In 2009, she became the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court, the first African American to be so named.