A Loss for New Mexico: A letter to the Editor

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With the death of former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, New Mexico lost not just an accomplished jurist committed to the fair treatment of all New Mexicans, but also a dedicated public servant whose leadership in the judiciary helped the state weather two fiscal downturns.

Justice Daniels, who sat on the Supreme Court from 2007 until 2018, served as chief justice twice – first from 2010 to 2012, when the state was still scrambling from the Great Recession, and again from 2016 to 2017, when the state was trying to survive a deep fiscal downturn triggered by a drop in oil prices. His unfortunate timing was fortunate for New Mexico.

As chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee during the oil bust, I can testify to Justice Daniel’s thoughtful and responsive leadership of the courts. New Mexico was fiscally upside down and, as the administrative head of a separate branch of government, the chief justice could have been difficult and combative. Instead, he worked with court leadership throughout the state to identify the least harmful cuts. He recognized that, although a different branch, the courts are part of state government and could be part of the solution. He set the tone and the courts followed.

Of course, his leadership during the fiscal crises was just a reflection of his inherent integrity. Born in a sharecropper’s shack absent indoor plumbing and electricity, he was the first in his family to earn a high school diploma and went on to serve in the Air Force and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Arizona and first in his class from the University of New Mexico law school. He then attended Georgetown University on a prestigious fellowship and earned a master’s degree in law.

In addition to serving on the court, he was a law professor and criminal defense and civil rights, attorney. Over his 38-year career in law, Daniels received the Outstanding Lawyer of the Year award from the Albuquerque Bar Association, the Quality of Life award from the New Mexico Bar Association, and the National Trial Advocacy Teacher of the Year award from the Roscoe Pound Foundation.

As part of his passion to ensure every New Mexican had equal access to justice, Daniels successfully pushed for bail reform, and he was critical to the Supreme Court’s effort to reform state guardianship and conservatorship laws.

Outside the courts, his drove race cars around the country and played electric bass, first in the country-leaning Lawyers, Guns and Money, most recently with the rock band The Incredible Woodpeckers, and one time in a music video with Brooks and Dunn.

Justice Daniels leaves behind an impressive record and colorful legacy. He will be missed, not least by those of us who worked with him on behalf of New Mexicans during a very difficult time.

Representative Patricia Lundstrom, executive director of the Greater Gallup Economic Development Corporation, has served in the New Mexico Legislature representing McKinley and San Juan counties since January 2001. She is chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and vice chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee. She is also a member of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee.

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