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From sharecropper shack to Supreme Court bench

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: Charles Daniels has spent nearly 50 years as a lawyer and judge in New Mexico, establishing a legacy few can match. He sat down to reflect on his career as he prepares to retire from the state Supreme Court.

Charles Daniels has had a stellar career as a lawyer and judge, including the past 11 years on the state Supreme Court where he has served two terms as chief justice.

He was top in his class at the University of New Mexico Law School and considered one of the state’s premier trial attorneys, handling both criminal and civil cases for nearly 40 years. He was a respected law professor.

When he is not on the bench, you can often find Justice Charles Daniels with his band, The Incredible Woodpeckers. (Courtesy of Charles Daniels)

Throw in that he’s a serious race car driver and an accomplished bass guitar player. (He even shows up in a Brooks & Dunn video).

It’s not the kind of life one might have predicted for a kid born to sharecropper parents in rural Arkansas, and who dropped out of UNM after one semester to join the Air Force because he had no idea what he wanted to do.

So what turned this life around?

The Air Force sent him to what he calls the “northernmost outpost of humanity” 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle where he had a lot of time to think. And a friend later loaned him a book: “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.”

Suffice it to say, that did the trick.

A clear message

At the age of 75, Daniels will leave the court at the end of the year. An early riser known for his work ethic, he estimates he has written more than 100 opinions.

“But in my 11 years, I’ve never written a dissent.”

That statistic provides an insight to his philosophy on the court.

“I’ve had cases where I thought there would be a better resolution than what the majority wanted, but majority rules.”

He acknowledges there have been cases where the court was split and he had to pick a side. But as a general rule, “I think the court has to be viewed as an organic whole. We speak not as individual justices, but as the voice of the Supreme Court. The one that sets the precedent and is the final voice.”

He agrees that some principles are so important that a dissent is warranted to speak to the future. “But often you can do that in a concurring opinion or getting the author of the majority opinion to include some reference to your position.”

Icy reflection

Daniels was born in southeastern Arkansas.

“We farmed a 10-acre patch we didn’t own with a borrowed mule and lived in an old sharecropper shack that had no electricity or running water.

“My dad hated it. His people were not farmers – his dad was a backwoods lumberjack – but my mother’s people had been farmers, so he tried his hand at it.”

The family ended up in Albuquerque when young Charlie was six.

“My dad’s sister moved to Albuquerque to take a job with a trucking company. She let my dad know there was a job available in the garage as a tire man. My dad got the job. He came back and loaded us into the car, and said ‘we aren’t farmers anymore.’

“I’d already started first grade in Arkansas. They bused us long distances to take us to the county white school – past the ramshackle black-only school.”

Daniels started school here at Pajarito Elementary. The family ended up in the Northeast Heights, and he attended Highland, then Sandia high schools.

He was an erratic student at best. “What I mostly wanted to do was hang out with my girlfriend and my buddies.”

Even so, he was the oldest of three sons and “the first in the family to even get to walk into a high school. Both my parents were pulled out of school to help support their families.”

He “wasted a semester” at UNM with no direction and no career goal.

“I dropped out at the end of the first semester, and decided I would join the military and see the world. Grow up.

“When I enlisted, it was a cold, cold winter day, and I told the recruiter I would sign up for a four-year hitch (later extended to five) if he would promise to send me somewhere warm. So, the first year I spent was in West Texas at a pilot training base in Big Spring.”

Next stop?

“I got shipped 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle to a radar base that was keeping an eye on Moscow. It was during the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis happened while I was there.”

His job involved flight planning, and monitoring incoming and outgoing flights.

“It was like being on the moon. No civilization. No girls. But it was probably one of the most helpful years of my life … . There was a lot of time to think and I remember looking out the window at the white expanse and re-evaluating my life – or maybe evaluating it for the first time – and I decided I can do better than this.”

Changing priorities

Daniels started taking military-sponsored correspondence courses through the University of Maryland.

“I left that base in the middle of the summer – they called it the light season – and it was snowing. A few days later, I checked into my next duty station, Tucson, Arizona, where it was 110 degrees.”

In addition to heat, Tucson had the University of Arizona.

Daniels took courses and started reading “Clarence Darrow for the Defense” by Irving Stone.

“I was overwhelmed with the realization that this was something I really wanted to do. To have a career in the law. Even though I had never thought seriously about it because we came from a culture that didn’t interact with doctors and lawyers.”

He volunteered to work the night shift and took UofA courses with financial help from the military. Now highly motivated, he sailed through the UofA, graduating magna cum laude.

Daniels earned his law degree from UNM, where he was an editor of the law review. And, of course, he has won a raft of professional “most outstanding” awards.

Highs and lows

Daniels reflected on the highs and lows of his time on the court.

“I think the high point is the Supreme Court’s leadership in achieving meaningful bail reform in New Mexico, starting with the opinion I authored that not only is important in New Mexico, but that has been recognized nationally. Known as the Brown decision, the court made clear that New Mexico’s Constitution guarantees that most defendants other than those in capital cases have the right to reasonable bail – regardless of how dangerous they might be.”

The law was essentially being ignored in a way that allowed the bail bond industry to flourish.

“The issue was the use of money to keep somebody in jail even though the evidence showed the person was neither a danger nor a flight risk. It caused us to really evaluate how we ended up with a money system.”

After Brown, Daniels was at the forefront of the court’s effort to push for a constitutional amendment that among other things allowed judges to hold defendants without bond if they found they were a danger to the community.

He said that work is “part of our responsibility as judges. We need to communicate with other branches of government when we think there is a need to improve the legal structure. … Our judges around the state had the untenable choice of following the law and allowing someone’s release, or becoming lawbreakers themselves.”

He drew the ire of the bail bond industry, but voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in 2016, although implementation has not been without controversy. The court, and Daniels, have weighed in on several cases to clarify the circumstances under which judges can order defendants to be held pending trial.

He was also instrumental in the Supreme Court pushing to reform New Mexico’s guardianship system – another instance in which there was considerable industry pushback.

Daniels doesn’t hesitate when asked about the low point: public suspicions that the court is driven by partisan politics.

“I have served with three Republican justices and five Democrats, and I’ve never seen a hint of a single one of them making a partisan political decision. The people I’ve served with without exception have focused on what is best for the law in the decisions we make. … ”

“There are no puppet strings,” he said, a reference to an attack ad funded by some trial lawyers at five Republicans who were up for election in November. All of them lost.

Daniels was a Democrat when he was appointed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson and he appeared that way on the ballot. He later changed his registration to independent.

Daniels said the one political election for judges required by law is “a flaw in our system.”

“The two factors LEAST likely to have an effect on the outcome are (a judge’s) ability to do the job and performance once in the job. What happens instead is political affiliation and coattails are a huge factor.

“To that extent I think politics harms the judiciary and the perception of the fairness of the judiciary.”

Speed racer

It’s a big change from the bench to the cockpit of a race car, but Daniels makes it regularly, lured by the speed and precision of the vintage Ford race cars he now drives.

Auto racing is another passion. After he took the bench, Daniels gave up corporate sponsorships, so his cars and suits have been unadorned, and the racing is self financed. (Courtesy of Charles Daniels)

He raced at the Texas Motor Speedway north of Fort Worth earlier this month on a combined road course and oval. Top speeds vary depending on the straightaways, but “120 mph feels real fast when you’re a few inches from the ground and a few feet away from other race cars.”

He climbed into the driver’s seat relatively late in life.

“I’d always been intrigued by racing and worked at the concession stand at Speedway Park as a teenager.”

But by the time he was old enough to race, he had signed up for active duty “and when I got out 5½ years later, I had a wife and two kids, and was headed to law school. As they say, life intervened.”

But that dream lived on.

Charles Daniels behind the wheel of a race car. He didn’t start racing until age 50, after his wife, Randi McGinn, purchased a driving package for him for his birthday. He was hooked. (Courtesy of Charles Daniels)

“When I was turning 50, Randi (his wife, trial lawyer Randi McGinn) knew about this interest I’d always had. … She bought me a three-day (driving package at a) professional racing school in California as a 50th birthday gift.”

After that, “I was hooked.”

“I was just captivated by the mental and physical challenge that was involved. It’s really working with Newton’s laws of physics.”

Daniels took it seriously, and at one point was racing for sponsors and prize money.

“We did well. We won races. I no longer race for prize money. From the time I went on court 11 years ago, I stopped taking any outside income.”

Near miss

Daniels’ drive for education almost took a detour to Vietnam when he was told to report to the base personnel office after he got off work one day.

“The sergeant behind the desk says, ‘I have some good news for you. You get to go to Vietnam.’ This made perfect sense to him. You join the military, you want to go fight somewhere. But my stomach just fell because I could just see all my plans for education going away.”

But then the sergeant explained there was a technical problem because “to go, you have to serve a 12-month tour of duty. But you only have 11 months left on your enlistment.”

Then the sergeant said not to worry, that if Daniels signed papers to extend by one month, he would get to go.

“I said, ‘Just a minute, Sarge, I’ve got a few questions. If I sign that paper, are you going to send me to Vietnam, and if I don’t sign you can’t make me go?’

“Sarge said, ‘That’s right.’

“‘Just one more question,’ I asked. ‘Is there any way you can make me sign that paper?’

“He said, ‘No.’

“At that point, I said, ‘You can just take that away and file it. I’m not signing it.’ Sarge replied, ‘Boy, I don’t understand you.’ And I said, ‘Sarge, it’s clear we have a different perception of reality.’ ”

Daniels hadn’t yet graduated from college, let alone law school, but it was a highly successful witness examination.

First for a reason

As a law professor and in practice, Daniels has carved out a reputation as a First Amendment advocate.

Chief Justice Charles Daniels addresses a joint session of the NM House and Senate during the 2017 legislative session, painting a grim picture of the state’s criminal justice system’s financial situation. He described the system as being “on life support.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I don’t think you can have a citizen-driven self government without the right to speak up without fear of retribution or adverse consequences – other than having people think you’re stupid, and we all take that risk.”

Reflecting on ongoing controversies over free speech on college campuses, social media and elsewhere, he said it is difficult – and dangerous – to try to regulate what people say.

“Even where you wish somebody would put a gag on someone else, we just can’t do that because then you get into deciding who’s going to put the gag on. … Once you start giving the government the right to prohibit speech based on the fact that it’s radical or untrue or whatever, you’re getting into an unworkable situation.”

People, he noted, “are all for free speech when they’re the speaker.”


Daniels says he has no specific plans in retirement, but will do some pro-tem, fill-in judging where needed and probably take on some pro bono work.

And time with family. He and Randi, both with previous marriages, have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

“With the exception of my first semester in law school, I’ve been working for 60 years.” With his 76th birthday approaching in January, Daniels said, “I am finally ready for a break.”

Then he quickly notes that he has already been accepted for 2019 races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Circuit of the Americas.

Nobody who knows him would be surprised to see him take on a high-profile case or cause. He says doors have a way of opening for him. But he’s the guy who walks through them.