Tough judge in English-learner case defies stereotypes
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 2, 2006
Amanda J. Crawford and Matthew Benson
He's put away child molesters and drug dealers and ordered teenage murderers to
be tried as adults. He's banned cattle grazing on federal land to protect
endangered spotted owls and upheld a controversial state abortion law.
But no other case has put U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins in the spotlight
more than Arizona's heated battle over funding to teach English to
schoolchildren, many of whom are the offspring of undocumented immigrants.
While these children may be U.S.-born citizens, they've become players in a
greater drama over immigration policy and government support for migrants.
And that drama is playing out in Collins' courtroom with questions of separation
of powers and judicial activism swirling around the judge's actions.
It's a curious position for Collins, 53, an intensely private man considered
apolitical by many court observers. For more than a year, Collins has been at
the center of a war of words and vetoes between Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano
and Republican legislative leaders. The judge, who denied repeated requests for
interviews for this story, at one point threatened to throw the governor, the
speaker of the House and president of the Senate in jail for failing to comply
with the court's orders in the 1992 Flores vs.
Frustrated by the political stalemate, he fined the state $1 million a day
earlier this year and, circumventing lawmakers, directed the $21 million in
penalties to go immediately to Arizona classrooms. That move was put on hold
Friday by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The English-learner case is the latest act for a judge who has defied
stereotypes and led a career in seeming contradictions: He's a Clinton appointee
who has at times sided with abortion opponents, a jurist known for avoiding the
partisan fray who's now accused of doing just the opposite.
On Monday, Collins will take center stage once more when he hears arguments on
whether the latest legislative plan to spend $32 million more next year for
English-language learners passes muster - even though the governor, who last
month let the bill go into effect without her signature, hopes he rejects it.
Going into the hearing, many legislators are fuming that Collins has overstepped
his constitutional authority. Some are throwing around the label "activist
judge" and even calling for congressional action against him.
Never one to shrink from an immigration battle, Rep. Russell Pearce is among the
most outspoken. The Mesa Republican described Collins as "that judge who hasn't
read the Constitution, thinks that he has the right to appropriate money and
should be impeached."
But those who know Collins say they doubt he is shaken by the controversy.
They describe him as a conscientious and studious judge, one who cracks jokes
with attorneys between cases but is quick to take lawyers who cross him to task
and often spends time dispensing nuggets of wisdom to defendants.
Most cases, of course, don't carry statewide ramifications or draw headlines.
They're the small-time drug cases and immigration hearings, the mundane
decisions that make up the majority of Collins' judicial record.
One morning last week was typical for his Tucson courtroom. The mood was tense,
as family members waited anxiously in wooden pews for the judge who held their
loved ones' futures in the balance.
When Collins arrived, he traded light banter with attorneys before bringing the
courtroom to order, and joked it was "a sign of Alzheimer's or something" when
he called a lawyer by the wrong name.
One of the defendants before him was a 35-year-old undocumented immigrant who
struck a plea agreement with prosecutors for trafficking marijuana. The judge
communicated through an interpreter with the man, who faced five years in prison
for the offense, his second in recent years. Collins warned him not to try to
enter the U.S. again. "You'd be well advised, once you serve this sentence and
are deported, to never, ever come back," he said grimly.
Collins, according to friends and colleagues, is a strong believer in the rule
of law who never shirks from doing what he believes the law demands, no matter
the emotions or political concerns involved.
"He takes in the arguments and carefully considers both sides," said Bruce
Heurlin, an attorney who has known Collins for years and argued before him many
times. "He's fair. He'll listen . . . . He is not going to do something based on
what other people think. He does what he thinks is right, whether people like
him or not."
From Arkansas to Arizona
Raner Christercunean Collins was born in Malvern, Ark., a town of about 9,000
people 45 miles from Little Rock that calls itself the "Brick Capital of the
World." He studied sociology at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech
University) and married his high school sweetheart, Theresa.
The couple had their first child, a son named Tameron, in 1973, the same year
that Collins graduated.
The family then moved to Tucson for Collins to attend law school at the
University of Arizona. There, Collins, who is Black, became part of a small
group of minority students at the mostly White law school. He joined the newly
formed Minority Law Students Association and played intramural sports.
But Collins, who had a young family at home, seemed mature for his age and
remained focused on his goals.
For example, Collins rarely was among the throngs attending the university's
football games. Instead, he spent Saturday afternoons in the nearly empty
"He studied when the rest of us were out playing," said Tucson trial attorney
Rick Gonzales, who was in Collins' law school class and was the beneficiary of
many of his unused tickets.
After graduating and passing the state bar in 1976, Collins went to work at the
Pima County Attorney's Office, where he had served as a law clerk. He became a
criminal prosecutor, but seemed even early in his career to have his eyes set on
Richard Davis, Tucson attorney who counts himself among Collins' closest
friends, said many of Collins' early career decisions were "geared toward"
winning a judicial appointment. After the birth of his second child, Candice,
Collins went to work as a magistrate for the city of Tucson. He then expanded
his legal experience by returning to the County Attorney's Office to handle
Said Gonzales, "There came a point in time in the County Attorney's Office that
it became pretty evident that he had certain qualities that transcended the
political stuff that was going on."
Starting in 1985, Collins served as a judge pro tempore, or temporary judge, in
Pima County Superior Court. Three years later, Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat,
officially named Collins to the Superior Court bench, saying he was "superbly
qualified and has garnered a reputation of fairness among his peers in the legal
Concern for children
While the English-learner case has gained notice for Collins, he has a long
history of cases involving children.
Collins spent five of his years as a Superior Court judge in the juvenile court,
including three years heading that court as its presiding judge.
During that time, juvenile caseloads skyrocketed and court staff was expanded.
Under his guidance, the court adopted a more progressive mission statement,
calling for more efforts to prevent juvenile crime.
Collins also served on gubernatorial task forces on youth issues and juvenile
justice and he continues to mentor minority high school students in his personal
time through membership in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. His colleagues said
he seemed deeply concerned about the well-being of the children who came before
"Having kids that age helped me understand some of the things the child was
going through and what the parent is going through," Collins told the Arizona
Daily Star before he left the juvenile court in 1993.
But the judge quickly learned that not every child could be saved. Perhaps no
case was more striking than the 1993 case of 14-year-old Gina Celaya, who was
charged with shooting a 50-year-old man to death and stealing his truck and $19
in cash. Collins ordered that she be tried as an adult, making her the youngest
person in Pima County history at that time to stand trial as an adult for
Her attorney called his decision a "tragedy for society" and asked, "Can we do
nothing for someone who has gotten nothing?"
Collins was blunt.
The system "doesn't have the services (for you)," he told the girl. "It's not a
question of money . . . Whatever we have for you is no hope. None whatsoever."
When a seat came open on the federal bench in Tucson, Collins was jointly
nominated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and Democrat Rep. Ed Pastor. Both said
Collins was their top choice, and President Bill Clinton appointed him in 1998.
A private man
Federal judges are famously discreet outside the courtroom, but Collins keeps a
low profile even by those standards.
Friends say that's nothing new for a man who has always kept to himself.
At his alma mater, Arkansas Tech, Collins is not listed in the alumni "Hall of
Distinction" despite his success. When asked about this peculiarity, an alumni
association employee said Collins' listing in their database doesn't even
include an occupation.
In response to requests by The Arizona Republic for a resume or other
biographical information, Collins' office faxed a one-page, four-line reply with
the years of his birth, admission to the bar and judicial appointments.
Davis described Collins as a religious man who has been active in his Baptist
church, is devoted to his family and has remained down-to-earth despite his
"He is the one person I think is honest as the day is long," Davis said. "He
labors to do what is right, politics be damned."
Collins has made headlines in recent years with a few politically sensitive
cases. In 2001, he upheld a law passed by state lawmakers that required
girls under 18 to get parental or judicial permission before undergoing
abortions. A year later, he struck down part of another abortion statute,
ruling that authorities couldn't inspect abortion clinics or obtain patient
records without a search warrant.
But since stepping into the Flores case, Collins has earned the ire of some
conservative Republicans who accuse him of overstepping his authority in his
rulings to force the state to spend more money teaching more than 150,000
non-English-speaking children the language.
State GOP chairman Matt Salmon accused Collins of trying to "jam his
ideology down everyone's throats."
"This guy, to me, is overstepping his bounds," Salmon said. "My belief is
he's legislating from the bench, or appropriating from the bench. And I
think that's wrong."
Flores vs. Arizona was filed 14 years ago on behalf of a Nogales family who
argued the state had failed to provide adequate resources to help
non-English speakers. In 2000, another federal judge found that state
funding for the program was insufficient. And though the Legislature nearly
doubled English-learner funding in 2001, the public-interest attorney
representing parents in the case asked the court to intervene again in 2004.
That's when Collins got involved, ruling last year that funding continued to
be "woefully inadequate."
He set a deadline for the state to address the issue by last spring. But the
legislative session ended in a bitter stalemate after the governor vetoed a
plan that she said did not meet the court's demand.
Last fall, attorney Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public
Interest asked Collins to sanction the state by withholding more than $500
million of federal highway funds.
Lawmakers and construction industry representatives objected. When an
attorney for a national engineering association questioned Collins' legal
authority to block the highway dollars, Collins, clearly annoyed, leaned
forward in his chair and asked pointedly, "What course in law school
prepares you to tell a judge what he can and can't do?"
But instead of taking the highway funds, Collins threatened to raise the
stakes for state officials personally. He repeatedly brought up the issue of
holding legislators and the governor in criminal contempt and freezing their
salaries or jailing them. He asked attorneys more than once, "Who should I
That's a question state officials hope not to hear Monday when they're again
in Collins' domain. He'll hear arguments over the Legislature's newest plan
for English instruction and will once more be the focus of statewide
attention and public opinion.
Whether he likes it or not.
Republic reporter Robbie Sherwood and researcher Joanne Dawson contributed
to this article.