Rich Collier: A Life in Full

It was a drive late at night through a snowstorm. But for Rich Collier it always seemed to come late at night in a blinding snowstorm:  the need to get to a judge’s house to get his signature on a court order. This time for a fourteen-year-old girl whose parents were trying to press her into an abortion.

Whether or not she was being “mature” as older people gauged maturity, she did not want to abort the baby.  Rich found the judge at home at midnight to give him an authorization to support the young girl. By 1 a.m. he arrived at her home, with the need to persuade her parents.  So desperate was she to connect with Rich that night that she jumped out the window in order to reach him, as though that paper he carried could bring deliverance.  

But it was probably not the paper so much as her own evident feeling, and the example of Rich, traveling under the worst of conditions for no other purpose than to save that child she was carrying. Something in that moral witness managed to melt the resistance of the parents and persuade them to the side of their daughter.

That was sixteen years ago, and now Rich’s family and friends were gathering in Princeton for the “visitation.” Rich had succumbed to cancer on Christmas Day.  Far too young – 63, at the peak of his powers. He had been persistently ranked among the “Super Lawyers” in “business litigation.” But he was quite as deft, unflagging, tenacious, as a lawyer in the pro-life movement.

His daughter and two sons were settled, all married now, all with children. And that 14-year-old girl of years past – she was now 30 and she was there, at the wake, with her teenage daughter, a lovely young woman. 

In the same year that he had gone to her rescue, he had driven in the snow to plead with another judge, but with prospects far less promising.  In a courtroom in Somerville, New Jersey, a 33-year old woman was accused of dealing in heroin.  She was also five-and-a-half months pregnant and seeking a release from jail so that she could have an abortion.

              Richard F. Collier, R.I.P.

Somehow the news made it to Rich, through his leadership in the Morristown Legal Center for the Defense of Life. Unbidden, Rich showed up in court seeking to act as guardian for the child.  To the disbelief and reluctance of everyone gathered around, he said,  I will vigorously represent my client. . . .This baby has an inalienable right to life, and nobody can take that away.  

But in an interesting turn, Rich offered to have his group pick up the cost of the bail so that the woman could make her decision. The judge did not think he had the authority to protect the unborn child. He would act only for the sake of preserving her “choice.” But Rich had his effect once again. The woman was free now from jail, free to have her abortion, but chose instead for the life of her child.  

In going over my own papers after Rich’s death, I came across an account he had set down for me ten years ago with the care of one taking a deposition. He was setting down the life-story and the testimony of a brave nurse at a hospital in New Jersey. She had found doctors in her hospital engaging, in effect, in the “live-birth abortion”:  delivering a child live and putting it in the refuse room to die.  

Rich had followed closely my own work in the framing and passage of the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act. He threw himself into the effort to compile a record and press a test case. And yet, even in the Department of Justice under George W. Bush we kept encountering procedural hurdles, grinding us down. We came to learn what we had to do in returning to that Act and adding serious, enforceable penalties.

Still, Rich was never himself ground down. He remained tenacious to his last days, always ready to hold hearings again to strengthen the Born-Alive Act so that it could do the fuller work it was meant to do in our law. Rich’s Dad had been in the FBI, and that influence seemed always at work in that moral conviction he brought to the law. Rich had gone to Harvard, and played football, and I always had the sense that the tenacity he had shown on the field had carried over to his relentless defense of human life at every stage.

For his dear wife, Janet, and for Megan, Sean and Matthew, what has been taken out of their lives is unfathomableBut set against the grieving, shared by his friends, there is the lingering gift of the energy and hope he imparted in defense of life.

Rich had kept in his files a meditation of John Paul II’s on the meaning of “paraclete.”  Jesus had referred to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete.  John Paul II noted that “parakletos means literally, ‘one who is called or appealed to’ (from para-kalein, ‘to call to one’s assistance’). He is therefore the ‘defender,’ ‘the advocate,’ as well as the ‘mediator’ who fulfills the function of intercessor.

That was Rich, interceding. And if the Paraclete can’t make it through a snowstorm, we know who will get there.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.