SANTA FE, N.M. — Judge Stephen Pfeffer’s office was bare on Monday except for office supplies and some legal reference books.
Pfeffer, 65, the Division VI judge who tries criminal cases for the First District Court, will retire on Friday, leaving his criminal docket to Judge T. Glenn Ellington. Pfeffer has been busy clearing out his office as he prepares for a retirement that he expects to spend making wood sculptures and traveling with his wife. He said he’s thankful for a career that has allowed him to apply his legal expertise to make important decisions that affect the community.
“I found this job to be a tremendous honor and I always tried to meet that responsibility,” Pfeffer said of his 17 years on the bench. “That’s how I feel about it.”
He would have faced a retention election next year.
Pfeffer had about 24 years of legal experience under his belt when he, at the encouragement of a fellow attorney, applied for a vacancy within the district. He was appointed to the bench in December 1996 by then-Gov. Gary Johnson. The first few years of his judgeship were spent handling civil cases.
Some of those lawsuits stand out for Pfeffer even more than some criminal proceedings he handled. Civil cases, Pfeffer said, can have wide-reaching implications for many people. He once presided over a 1998 lawsuit challenging legislation that shuttered drive-up liquor establishments in New Mexico. Litigants sued the state, alleging lawmakers overstepped their authority by passing three different pieces of legislation, which allowed Johnson to select one to sign, Pfeffer said. Pfeffer upheld the constitutionality of the legislation, a decision that was not appealed.
Another civil case that stands out for Pfeffer was recognized with a Common Good Gatekeeper Award in 2004. In that case, Pfeffer ruled against plaintiffs who sued a priest who presided over a funeral, during which he declared, “God vomits people like (the deceased) into hell.” Pfeffer said that, although he could understand the family’s feelings, he felt the court had no legal authority over the priest’s comments due to the separation of church and state.
Pfeffer started taking criminal cases after about three years on the bench.
“It was like starting a new career,” he said.
He noted that these cases, unlike some of his civil cases, affected the lives of small groups of individuals. In handling these cases and in deciding how to sentence an offender, Pfeffer said he had to balance the victims, the defendant and a duty to protect the community. While some offenders are so dangerous they should be incarcerated for the protection of others, he said, he worries that modern society is “addicted” to incarceration as an answer to crime. In his own experience, he tried balancing incarceration with methods such as electronic monitoring, which punishes offenders but allows them to go to work, stay sober and raise families.
To that end, Pfeffer said he’d try to encourage defendants to develop their skills and not to victimize themselves or others. He said he worries that when people lack opportunities, such as employment, they’re likely to fall into trouble. He said he believes most people naturally want to have a good job, to be able to afford a car or to care for their families.
“If (those opportunities) are not there, then something else takes its place,” he said. “It certainly makes me not feel sanctimonious when I’m sentencing somebody.”
When asked if he had any concerns about the criminal justice system as a whole, Pfeffer said people who are incarcerated need to be safe. He’s worried about the proliferation of prison gangs, which can cause violence and can lead to people being locked away in solitary confinement.
“It reflects on our society in how we treat the incarcerated,” he said. “… I have that concern because I incarcerate people.”
When asked if he had any advice for his replacement, Pfeffer was hesitant, saying Ellington was an experienced criminal lawyer, but he added that criminal judges need balance.
“While it should be recognized that people deserve chances, at some point I believe the overall responsibility is to protect the general society, which calls upon being firm,” Pfeffer said.