In 1997, New Jersey attorney Richard Collier was appointed by his state’s Superior Court to represent an unborn baby in court. The baby’s mother was in jail and wanted to have an abortion, but Collier fought tenaciously for the child’s life. After losing the case in court, Collier drove in the middle of the night in a terrible snowstorm to appeal it, only to lose again.
But Collier didn’t lose heart. In fact, he never gave up fighting for life, even until his last day—even when confronted by his own cancer.
According to his family, Collier—a longtime friend and donor to The Cardinal Newman Society—went to God on Christmas Day. He was surrounded by family and friends in his final hours, and two visitors arrived at his wake: a 16-year-old girl and her mother.
It turned out that the mother in jail had not aborted her daughter in 1997, in part because she heard Collier’s arguments in court for choosing life. The daughter was born the following Father’s Day. Together, the mother and daughter told Collier’s children that they “loved their father.”
Collier’s family learned many other things about him after his death, because he was “very humble,” his daughter Megan Collier Reilly told The Cardinal Newman Society in an interview on January 9th.
Newman Society President Patrick Reilly (no relation to Megan) is not surprised.
“Rich was the gentle but tenacious fighter you want at your side,” he said. “He never missed an opportunity to encourage our work for faithful Catholic education, even while he was making history in the pro-life movement.”
A graduate of Bergen Catholic High School, Harvard College and Boston University School of Law, Collier spent 36 years in private law practice. It was as an attorney that he made his contributions to the pro-life movement, since 1989 serving as president of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life in Morristown, N.J. The Center describes itself as a pro-bono legal service for:
…protecting the free speech rights of sidewalk counselors; providing advice to expectant fathers whose children are threatened with abortion as well as expectant mothers being coerced into abortion; giving counsel to those setting up crisis pregnancy centers and shelter homes; and defending the rights of the elderly and infirm.
Collier was active in a number of pro-life legal cases, gave numerous talks on pro-life legal issues, wrote pro-life articles and spoke at the New Jersey Rallies for Life, and received many awards for his accomplishments. These include the St. Thomas More Award, which is “given to a Catholic attorney or judge who exemplifies a commitment to moral conscience and an intense concern for others in the pursuit of justice” in conjunction with the Red Mass in the Diocese of Metuchen, according to an article on NJ.com.
Most prominent was Collier’s work against partial-birth abortion. When the New Jersey legislature passed a statewide partial-birth abortion ban in 1997—the state’s first restriction on abortion in 25 years—and then overrode a veto by then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the law was challenged by Planned Parenthood and three other abortion businesses. Whitman refused to defend the law, so the legislature hired Collier to represent the state in court.
Collier was up against a “culture of death”: The U.S. District Court for New Jersey ruled that the law placed an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion, and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals denied Collier’s appeal, following the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Stenberg v. Carhart. In that ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer claimed that any law burdening a woman’s “right to choose” was unconstitutional, and he struck down a Nebraska law similar to New Jersey’s ban.
Nevertheless, Collier’s efforts were hailed as extraordinary. With the expert testimony he collected in his New Jersey case, he helped lay the groundwork for the federal ban on partial-birth abortion (in 2003) and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which upheld the ban.
That day in April 2007 when the Supreme Court ruling came down, Collier wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines. He helped lead a press conference outside of a New Jersey clinic that reportedly performed 1,500 partial-birth abortions a year and demanded enforcement of the federal law, according to Christian News Wire.
Collier’s pro-life work was often difficult and thankless—and in 2004, he endured a painful insult from Seton Hall University’s law school, which awarded its Sandra Day O’Connor Medal of Honor to U.S. Circuit Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, who in 2000 had rejected Collier’s appeal and halted New Jersey’s ban on partial-birth abortion.
“It's yet another example of Catholic colleges giving aid and comfort to abortion advocates in the name of academic freedom,” said Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly at the time, in an interview with the National Catholic Register. “Catholic colleges are not supposed to be neutral on the atrocity of abortion.”
Newark Archbishop John Myers publicly denounced the award as “profoundly offensive and contrary to the Catholic mission and identity” of the University.
But Collier was understandably devastated by the betrayal from a Catholic institution. He called the award “outrageous” and lamented the failure of Seton Hall and the Archdiocese to cancel the event, the Register reported.
Nevertheless, Collier didn’t let disappointments in the pro-life movement get him down. A friend of Collier wrote, “His warm smile and sense of humor contrasted sharply with the gravitas of the legal issues he worked so diligently defending…His intelligence, enthusiasm, and work ethic were stellar, and he was in it to win.”
He was a hard worker, yet Megan told The Cardinal Newman Society that she always “felt like he was there” for the family and “never missed an important event.” How was he able to do so much? Megan said that it’s amazing how much he was able to do, and related that he was a man of prayer who was good at multitasking and had a supportive and sacrificial wife.
Collier andhis wife Janet were married for 36 years and had three children—Megan and two boys, Sean and Matthew. Megan said that her father’s first priority was God, and the second was family, not that the two were ever in conflict. The family made Mass on Sunday a priority and tried to attend daily Mass; they prayed together, especially the Rosary and the Angelus. The Colliers would make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament whenever they passed a Church, and they valued faithful Catholic education.
As a special tradition, Collier always read a story from the Bible to his young children before they went to sleep at night. In recent years, he loved spending time with his five grandchildren and was awaiting another due to be born in July.
Collier was “countercultural” in that he “didn’t care for the things of this world” but was a “man of God and for God,” Megan said. He was able to live out his Faith “without yelling” but always showing charity.
“For the countless lives he touched, and the many he saved by his valiant work, we pray that Rich finds rest in the loving arms of Jesus until we see him again,” the Newman Society’s Reilly said.
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