Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Born to sharecroppers in southeastern Arkansas, Charles W. Daniels was the first person in his family to go to high school, and he would go on to spend two terms as New Mexico’s chief justice.
Daniels died in his home Sunday morning at age 76, just eight months after his retirement from the bench. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease seven weeks ago.
A former law professor, criminal defense and civil rights attorney, Daniels spent his legal career fighting to ensure justice was applied equally to all. To that end, he was the driving force behind a massive shift away from the monetary bail system in state courts and he shepherded the state Supreme Court’s efforts to reform state adult guardianship and conservatorship rules and laws.
“He was a guy who came from a very humble background who also happened to be brilliant and energetic and scrupulous, meticulous,” said John Boyd, Daniels’ longtime law partner. “But he also felt very, very strongly that everybody was entitled to equal treatment in the courts, and I think it was a matter of frustration to him in his life that we don’t have a system where that’s really entirely possible.”
Daniels was on the Supreme Court from 2007 until December and served as chief justice from 2010 to 2012 and again from 2016 to 2017.
“Our state has lost a titan of the law,” Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said in a statement Sunday. “… All New Mexicans have benefited from his lifelong devotion to a fair and impartial system of justice.”
He is survived by his wife, Randi McGinn, four children, nine grandchildren and an adopted son from Hong Kong.
‘A great advantage’
Daniels spent the first years of his life in Arkansas, where his parents farmed 10 acres with a borrowed mule while living in a “shack with no electricity or running water.”
“I think it was a great advantage to come from the nothing our family had, because everything has been a blessing,” Daniels said shortly after he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2007. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.”
The family relocated to Albuquerque when Daniels was 6, and he went on to attend Sandia and Highland high schools.
He joined the Air Force after a semester at the University of New Mexico and was stationed in Greenland, then Tucson. Daniels enrolled in classes at the University of Arizona and finished his military service and his degree at the same time.
From there, he returned to Albuquerque, started law school and ultimately graduated first in his class. He would later earn a master of laws degree from Georgetown University.
Over the next nearly 50 years, Daniels’ career included stints teaching at the UNM School of Law and practicing in criminal defense and civil rights law. When he appointed Daniels to the court, then-Gov. Bill Richardson said he was chosen for his “keen intellect, outstanding reputation and unwavering commitment to uphold the rule of law.”
Daniels also had interests outside the law.
He was an accomplished bass guitar player. A fixture in the music scene since the 1970s, Daniels started playing on and off at parties and roadhouses, and he played most recently with The Incredible Woodpeckers, whose members included two retired judges in addition to Daniels. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame as a musician was a guest role playing guitarist in the music video for the Brooks & Dunn hit “Brand New Man.”
He also loved the rumble of vintage race cars and began racing at the age of 50. At one point he even raced at the Texas Motor Speedway, north of Fort Worth, on a combined road course and oval.
“Most of the guys at the track didn’t know what he did for his day job,” McGinn said. “They just knew that he would beat them on the track.”
Brilliant legal mind
Boyd said the late justice was a man of “absolutely scrupulous honesty and ethics” who never cut a corner. And that was only one of the attributes that made him a masterful courtroom lawyer.
“He has this force of personality coupled with meticulous preparation and transparent honesty and integrity that allows him to really just dominate any courtroom,” Boyd said.
Boyd said Daniels was known in the legal community as the top criminal defense lawyer. He represented high-profile murder defendants, including a woman charged with killing her husband, and a man who came forward and admitted to a homicide that four other people had been wrongly convicted of.
As a justice, Daniels fostered a culture of collegiality, often reminding his colleagues that they could “disagree without being disagreeable,” Nakamura said in an interview Sunday afternoon.
“And one of the last things he said to me sitting in my office was, ‘Judy, we will always be friends. The issues don’t define that.’ ”
In her statement, she said his pretrial justice advocacy led to “one of the most significant justice reforms in New Mexico history.” Daniels, she said, brought to the court a brilliant legal mind, sharp wit, compelling presence and dedication to advancing equal justice under the law.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that Daniels led the high court with “clarity and conviction, leaving a legacy rivaled by few.”
“Not only was he professionally talented, he was incredibly kind, with a warm personality that drew so many people to him, including myself,” Lujan Grisham said.
Time to say goodbye
Daniels’ case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis progressed faster than his family expected, but McGinn said her husband did not feel sorry for himself. In fact, he felt lucky.
“When you have this fatal diagnosis, people realize that you’re running out of time to say the things you want to,” said McGinn, his wife of 30 years.
And the emails, calls and visitors have flooded in, each person describing how Daniels inspired them to be lawyers, to work hard, to be ethical, to find a way to balance other interests with what can be all-consuming work.
McGinn, also a legal powerhouse, said Daniels was a partner in the truest sense of the word, who celebrated her accomplishments as much as he celebrated his own.
He was wonderful, she said, and kind in a world where kindness can feel hard to find.
“Despite being so blazingly smart,” she said, “he understood the humanity of people and had a compassion for others that’s unusual in people who are as smart as he is.”
Quotes on Charles Daniels
“He was a mentor to a generation of law students, many law faculty, several New Mexico Supreme Court justices, a generation of ACLU-NM officers who depended upon his wisdom long after he left the presidency of the organization, and, I suspect, a host of musicians, race car drivers, and who knows what else. He was a natural teacher and mentor, and he found ways to continue that work for forty years after he formally left law school teaching. There are few people — if any — who have left such a mark on the law in New Mexico.”
— Robert Schwartz, UNM emeritus professor of law
“When I was a student at UNM School of Law, Justice Daniels was already legendary as a trial lawyer. When I became an attorney, my admiration turned to adoration for his warmth, humor and kindness. New Mexico’s jurisprudence is better thanks to his service on the bench.”
— Brian Colón, New Mexico state auditor
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Justice Charles Daniels. He was a champion of fairness and equality in our judicial system, and the State of New Mexico benefited greatly from his service.”
— Hector Balderas, state attorney general
“All of us at the (Law Offices of the Public Defender) are saddened by the passing of Charles Daniels. He was a man who, as a lawyer, a Supreme Court justice, a mentor, and a friend, changed the culture and the practice of law in our state. His intelligence, drive, and devotion to the law and to the people who serve it, will be deeply missed.”
— Bennett Baur, chief public defender