ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a legal career that spanned five decades, Marc (Marcelino) Prelo was among the original attorneys who in 1972 helped establish the first office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of New Mexico.
He was also a former city attorney for Ruidoso, an associate professor of law at the University of New Mexico’s American Indian Law Center, and he successfully argued a landmark tribal sovereignty case before the United States Supreme Court.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Prelo to the Gaming Control Board in 2009 to fill a vacancy.
Prelo, 85, died Dec. 20, in Lincoln, California, near Sacramento, where he lived for the last seven years with his wife of nearly 60 years, Cecilia.
Prelo was one of seven children born to Josephine and Marcelino Prelo, in Alamogordo. After earning his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of New Mexico in 1956, he served as a communications officer in the U.S. Navy, where he was stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In 1960, he met and married the former Cecilia Ramos, who taught and tested special needs children in Albuquerque and Ruidoso.
Prelo returned to UNM and received his doctoral degree in law in 1966. His first job as an attorney was clerking for H. Vearle Payne, then the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico.
As an associate professor of law at UNM’s American Indian Law Center, Prelo taught tribal judges and prosecutors. He also successfully argued the landmark 1978 tribal sovereignty case, Martinez v. Santa Clara.
“Under tribal law at the time, the children of women who married outside the tribe couldn’t be tribal members, while children of men who married outside the tribe could retain membership,” explained Prelo’s niece, Carmen Garza of Las Cruces, who is the Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of New Mexico.
Representing the Santa Clara tribal government, Prelo successfully argued that the sovereignty of the tribe superseded the federal discrimination law under which the case was brought.
Apart from his keen legal mind, Garza said her uncle was a proud New Mexican. “He loved the people, the culture, the traditions, and dear God, the UNM Lobos, although he followed the NMSU Aggies when my nephew, Joe, was on the (basketball) team.”
He was also a family man. In addition to his numerous siblings, Garza said, “he had 22 nieces and nephews and countless great nieces and great nephews, and he showed up for every important event in our family’s life.”
One of those great nephews, Chris Melendrez, the senior legal advisor to the Albuquerque City Council and associate director of Council Services, said Prelo inspired him to pursue law.
“Even as a child, I knew Uncle Marc was not ordinary. He had a presence, he was different from anyone I had encountered within my world view.” As an adult, Melendrez said, his uncle “continued to embody some of the values and characteristics that we admire most and aspire toward – he had integrity, he had morality and he had joy.”
After Melendrez became a lawyer, he said, “I developed a deeper appreciation for him because of all his professional accomplishments, the way in which he represented clients, and his public service to New Mexico.”
Prelo’s daughter, Roxanna Friedrich, practiced law with her father for several years. “It was wonderful. We had a lot of fun and I learned a lot. It was invaluable experience,” she said.
Friedrich, who lives in the Sacramento area, said her father “was always supportive, loving and encouraging, and he told me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it.”
She also called her father humble, generous and kind, someone who “practiced law to help others.”
“He was not an attorney who was out there just to try make money. He was a gentleman and thought practicing law was still a very noble profession, and you were supposed to do what was best, what was right and what was moral.”
While her father took the practice of law seriously, “he had a great sense of humor and was not dour by any stretch of the imagination,” Friedrich said. “He treated people the same, regardless if they were influential or affluent or could provide some kind of service.”
Marc Prelo was cremated and a memorial service was held for him in California. The family requests that people who wish to remember him make a donation in his name to the UNM School of Law.