Todd Collins: From courtroom to classoom:A new career for this former prosecutor
Six years ago Todd Collins prosecuted cases in Surry and Stokes counties, near his Mount Airy, North Carolina, family home. Collins was a lawyer with a difference, with unshakeable research interests in judicial policies and process. He devoured constitutional law, civil rights, civil liberties, criminal law and procedure, legal theory, criminal justice, immigration policy, elections and voting behavior, and Southern politics.
After practicing law with scarce time for research, Collins returned to his old love. At UGA, Collins studied under a distinguished political science faculty who had credentials he sought. Several held law degrees and doctorates, including Jeff Yates, a political science professor.
Now Collins is an academician with a coveted addition to his resume and a new job waiting. In January, Collins presented the only doctoral research paper during UGA’s historic conference, The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century. Collins’ research into Carter’s appellate appointments and reforms dovetailed with the symposium commemorating the 30th anniversary of Carter’s inauguration. It was, Collins adds, the perfect culmination of his doctoral work at UGA.
“I was proud and glad to be here at that time, and felt lucky,” he says. Carter insiders, former Cabinet members, dignitaries and famous media members threaded through the Georgia Center’s hallways as Secret Service members discretelyobserved. Capacity crowds forced the overflow to congregate around monitors dotted around campus to watch the proceedings on C-Span as it was broadcast live to the nation.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were both speakers and participants along with former vice president Walter Mondale and Carter appointees Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jody Powell and Madeline Albright. PBS reporter Judy Woodruff and NBC reporter Brian Williams joined the famous newsmakers they had so frequently interviewed.
Collins could scarcely believe Carter stood only inches away discussing his legacy. John Maltese, one of Collins’ advisors and professors, worked for over a year to pull the Carter symposium together. Though carefully orchestrated, the event had a relaxed, almost celebratory air.
“One of the amazing things was it was like a class reunion,” Collins observed.
In a real sense, Collins’ dissertation work sprang to life as he joined his dissertation advisor, Susan Haire, on a distinguished panel. Haire, political science professor and panel moderator, guided Collins toward the subject of President Carter’s judicial reforms, his eventual dissertation focus. In January of 2006, he presented research called Presidential Influence over Appellate Case Outcomes at the Southern Political Science Association’s Annual Conference. The paper was a preamble of sorts to his doctoral work, Deciding Who Decides: Ideological Cohesion and Presidential Appointments to the Federal Courts of Appeals.
Terrence Adamson, former special assistant to the Attorney General and former chief spokesman for the Department of Justice during the Carter Administration sat at the far end of the panel. Tobias Gibson from Monmouth College sat at Collins’ left; on his right was Elliot Slotnick from Ohio State.
When Collins began analyzing presidential nominees to the courts he became a regular at the Carter library in Atlanta. “Many scholars focus on the president’s influence on legal policy through Supreme Court nominations,” Collins explains. “Less research has examined such influence through U.S. Courts of Appeals nominations.”
Using both quantitative and qualitative research techniques, Collins examined the way in which presidential policy and preferences affect judicial outcomes. He also considered the “possible decay of presidential influence through the judge’s career.” A case study of Carter’s nomination strategy and policy influence was a key portion of his focus.
“I enjoy constitutional law issues,” Collins says, taking a break from his full schedule of teaching and completing his dissertation. “There are very few attorneys who get to go to the Supreme Court and argue a case; that’s very different than the day-to-day practice of an attorney.”
Collins also discovered “an absolute love of teaching,” saying he’s prone to nudge students toward a debate.
“There were educators in my family. My father was a community college educator and administrator,” he says. Collins, a research assistant in the political science department three years, was also named an outstanding teaching assistant at UGA. He mentored graduate students and won a National Science Foundation Dissertation Completion Grant. But being impaneled at the Carter Symposium was historymaking. “It’s a nice end point,” Collins says, preparing for a run.
He is eager to begin anew in Cullowhee (population 4,000). Like Athens, it is a place of hills to conquer. Tightening his laces he sets off for a new horizon as Todd Collins, legal eagle turned political scientist.