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Front Page - Friday, March 8, 2019

Civility is Collier’s retirement mission

Senior U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier speaks to students, attorney coaches and other volunteers during the opening assembly of this year’s Hamilton County high school mock trial competition. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Federal judge Curtis Collier has been on a mission since taking senior status in 2014.

Concerned about the swelling tide of incivility among attorneys, he’s made an effort to speak with any group that will listen about the importance of good manners in the legal profession.

“People come to lawyers to resolve some of the most important and emotional issues in their lives. So, when a lawyer eggs them on, it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he says. “Lawyers have to be able to disengage from their emotions and the hostility of a case and talk to the other side in a civil, respectful manner.”

Many young people have lent Collier their ears as he’s crusaded on behalf of civility in the courts. The Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association has even brought students from local schools to the federal courthouse to hear him speak.

So, Collier was pleased when the Chattanooga Bar Association asked him to be the honorary chair of this year’s high school mock trial competition, as the role would allow him to further spread his message.

“This nation has lost the ability to engage in civil discourse about contentious issues,” he explains. “And the only way civilized society can resolve disputes is by people talking respectfully to each other and coming to a rational conclusion.

“By engaging in mock trials, students learn there’s another way to resolve disputes. You place your evidence before a neutral body, make your presentation in a respectful way and are civil to the other side. There’s no yelling.”

Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Alex McVeagh, the spearhead of this year’s mock trial competition, says the students who would be competing would benefit from hearing Collier’s message of civility.

“These competitions have become a bit cutthroat, and we want everyone to learn the importance of professionalism and sportsmanship,” he adds. “We don’t need your frivolous objections. We don’t need you refusing to shake the other team’s hand.

“The law is an adversarial system, but it doesn’t have to be contentious and cutthroat.

“You represent your client zealously, but in a civil manner.”

McVeagh says Collier’s campaign was well-timed, given the number of local schools that would be competing for either the first time or for the first time in many years.

“We have some schools that are very good and have a history of making it to the state finals,” he says. “We also had a lot of nervous first-timers this year.

“I didn’t want the competition scaring away anyone that might be interested in the legal profession.”

To further underscore the importance of treating opponents respectfully and to encourage students to aim for a high standard of civility, the Chattanooga Bar Association created the Judge Curtis L. Collier Spirit of Civility Award.

To be eligible to receive the award, a team needs to demonstrate the ideals Collier espouses during the preliminary rounds of the competition.

Collier says he was humbled when the CBA asked if he would lend his name to the award. “I don’t think there’s a better attribute you can attach to a lawyer than to say he or she is civil,” he says.

The CBA also gave the judge a few minutes to speak to the mock trial participants during the competition’s opening assembly the evening of Feb. 21 in the atrium of the City Courts building. As dozens of students, attorney coaches and other volunteers listened, he set the stage and then placed civility at the front and center.

“This competition will give you a realistic view of how our society resolves disputes through the law,” he began. “As human beings, we will always have disputes. Often, disputes are heated and leave heightened emotions and bitter feelings.

“Lawyers play a vital role in resolving disputes under the law. But they cannot become involved in the dispute themselves. If attorneys become caught up in the emotions, passions and heat, then instead of helping to resolve the dispute, they’ll make the dispute worse.”

Collier then admonished the students to remember they would be acting as lawyers, and to try to have a calming influence around them.

“You’ll have to be civil to the other side, to the witnesses and to everyone else who’s involved in the process,” he said. “It’s not the job of the lawyer to see who can scream the loudest or create the biggest ruckus. That works on television but not in real life.”

After four rounds of preliminary competition, McCallie Blue and STEM School were awarded the inaugural Spirit of Civility Award.

David Wilson, faculty adviser for the STEM School team, says the competition brought the two teams together in respect and admiration.

“After McCallie bested STEM, our teams shook hands and praised each other’s work. McCallie didn’t gloat and STEM held their heads high. They both genuinely enjoyed the competition and each appreciated having a worthy adversary,” Wilson adds.

“The students demonstrated the great American spirit of brotherhood and civility upon which our court system depends. Unfortunately, we have turned a birthright into a reality TV show. These students are reclaiming that birthright and showing us a better way.”

While Collier praises the local high school mock trial competition for giving its participants a better understanding of democracy and how the American legal system works, he notes its greatest benefit is that it helped to lay the foundation for the students to become better citizens. He says this includes them serving as vanguards of civility for their generation.

“Twenty years from now, it’s not going to matter if they won or lost,” he says. “What will matter is if they became engaged and effective citizens.”