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Judge known for fairness, called a ‘force of nature’

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District Judge Sarah Singleton smiles after a ruling in 2017 in Santa Fe.(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Sarah Singleton – a hard-working judge who issued landmark rulings on same-sex marriage, gubernatorial vetoes and New Mexico’s education system – died Thursday. She was 70.

Singleton, who served in the 1st Judicial District, retired in 2017 but continued to preside over some cases as late as this summer.

As a district judge in Santa Fe, Singleton handled a broad collection of influential cases over the last decade – approving an order that led to the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in 2013, invalidating 10 vetoes by then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2017 and finding in 2018 that New Mexico violated the constitutional rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement praising her service.

“Judge Singleton was a dedicated jurist and highly respected member of the community,” Lujan Grisham said. “The first New Mexico judge to rule in favor of marriage equality, she was committed to fairness, equity, and justice and leaves a legacy that will be remembered for many years to come.”

District Judge Bryan Biedscheid said Friday that Singleton worked incredibly hard, even in retirement. She knew the law well but was never pretentious, he said.

Biedscheid practiced in Singleton’s court as an attorney before joining the bench himself.

“She was a force of nature,” he said in an interview. “She wasn’t a judge who had to sit around and pretend she knew everything – she would ask questions. You could tell her goal was really to be fair and do justice for people.”

Singleton, who died of metastatic endometrial cancer, was a baseball fan who coached Little League. She also loved dogs and did volunteer work.

After her retirement, Singleton donated her time to the court to help with the transition and to continue presiding over some cases – work that continued until the last two weeks.

District Judge Francis Mathew said Singleton had a reputation for fairness, even among attorneys on multiple sides of a case. She put in full days at the courthouse even after retiring, he said.

“She was a tremendous asset,” Mathew said. “She was always ready to help with a case.”

Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer of the 1st Judicial District, said Singleton was so well-respected that lawyers would sometimes cite her in their arguments, as if she were a Supreme Court opinion or similar authority.

Singleton was appointed in 2009 to the bench by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, who cited her 30 years of experience, including at the Singleton Law office and in the office of the Public Defender, both in Santa Fe.

Before that, Singleton was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2006 to serve on the board of directors for the Legal Services Corp., the leading provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the United States.

Singleton told the Journal in 2017 that she had a passion for “equal access to justice,” work that would continue after she retired.

“My retirement,” she said at the time, “will not dampen my interest in or enthusiasm for assuring that people are not denied justice due to an inability to afford it.”

Singleton had a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and graduated with highest honors from the Indiana University School of Law in 1974.

As as a judge, Singleton handled civil cases large and small.

In 2015, she presided over a wrongful death case that resulted in the state’s largest ever jury award, $165 million against the FedEx shipping company.

In 2012, she ruled against a Santa Fe man who claimed wireless electronic devices used by a neighbor adversely affected his health.

Employees of the 1st Judicial District gathered outside the courthouse Friday to lower the flag to half-staff in tribute to Singleton.

Singleton is survived by her partner, retired Appeals Court Judge Lynn Pickard; her brother, Palmer Singleton; and a nephew.

A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. July 14 at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe.

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