Justice Barbara Vigil steps down after 20 years on the bench

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil gives her State of the Judiciary address in 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Senior Justice Barbara Vigil has left her mark on the state’s judiciary, and the law of New Mexico, during her more than two decades on the bench – first as a trial court judge in Santa Fe and then as a justice of the state Supreme Court.

And along with published opinions and guiding precedent set forth for posterity in law books, she has left the family’s brand on cattle she and her siblings still actively participate in raising on a northern New Mexico ranch.

The judicial chapter of her life closed on Wednesday, June 30, when her retirement from the court became effective. But energetic and engaging, don’t expect much of a slowdown from Vigil – on the ranch, on the international travel/lecture circuit or some as-yet-to-be-determined future endeavor.

“It’s been an incredible honor to serve on the judiciary because the work of the court is so critically important to the things I believe in …” she said. “But I thought after 21 years … it was time to pivot and evolve to determine how I might serve our state in another role.”

St. Catherine’s Indian School

A native New Mexican, Vigil, 62, hails from a ranching and farming family.

“I came to attend St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe because my mother passed away unexpectedly when I was 12. She was the center of our family and the center of my life. My father, who had five daughters and one son “sought to enroll his daughters at St. Catherine’s because it was a boarding school and he could continue to work through the week and his family could be cared for at school.”

It was a good fit for young Barbara academically – she was class valedictorian. And it was a good fit in other ways. “It was a Catholic boarding school and the nuns ran a tight ship, so I developed an innate practice of being very organized and structured in my life and that was very valuable to me to have lived there and be educated in that environment.” It was an education in life skills that has served her well in challenging positions in law and life.

It also was the beginning of a life-long relationship with Native Americans and an appreciation for their culture.

“We developed close relations with a number of Native American students. We were raised with them and it was something that instilled in me a deep appreciation for our native communities.”

That was reinforced by watching her grandmother interact with pueblo women at her home in the North Valley of Alameda.

“My grandparents ran a small family farm and we would sell fruits and vegetables on Fourth Street. One of the fondest memories I have of growing up was of Native American women from the pueblos visiting my grandmother in her kitchen. She spoke only Spanish and these women would speak Tewa, but they would go in the kitchen and have coffee. They didn’t speak the same language but managed to trade and enjoy each other’s company.

“I think that instilled in me a deep appreciation for the cultural core of New Mexico and how beautiful it is and how it is so unique.”

It also set her on a natural course of working with tribal communities and tribal courts in New Mexico after she became a lawyer and judge, strengthening those institutional relationships.

Chief Justice Barbara Vigil and Justice Edward Chavez hear arguments during an aid-in-dying hearing in 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Advocating for children

After working in private practice and as a government lawyer, Vigil became a district court judge in Santa Fe in 2000, where she served for 12 years. She presided over more than 16,000 cases in areas ranging from complex civil litigation to criminal proceedings. She also presided over Children’s Court for more than 10 years and was instrumental in the creation of juvenile justice boards in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.

Juvenile justice issues became a passion for her.

“As a Children’s Court judge one cannot help but become aware of the critical needs of our children and families,” she said in a state bar publication interview. “Personally, I found it impossible not to advocate for new ways to improve our system in order to better serve our children.

“I maintain that as judges we must continually examine and address the system barriers….”

She was elected to the Supreme Court in November 2012 and in 2014 was chosen by her colleagues to serve as chief justice, a position she held until April 2016.

Horrendous crimes

Asked whether any particular case as a Supreme Court justice stands out for her, Vigil reflects for a moment and points out that the court considers many important cases and issues.

But the one she mentions is the 2019 majority opinion she wrote vacating the sentences of death row inmates Timothy Allen and Robert Fry, ruling that their state-sanctioned executions would be unjust since other criminals convicted of similar crimes received lesser sentences. Both had been sentenced to die before the Legislature repealed capital punishment at the urging of then-Gov. Bill Richardson.

“In comparing petitioners’ cases to other equally horrendous cases in which defendants were not sentenced to death, we find no meaningful distinction which justifies imposing the death sentence upon Fry and Allen,” Vigil wrote. It was a 3-2 decision and she was joined by then-Justices Charles Daniels and Edward Chávez.

Courts don’t decide hypotheticals and the crimes were horrendous.

Allen in 1994 picked up 17-year-old Sandra Philips, who was walking to do an errand in northwestern New Mexico. She was found six weeks later by a sheepherder, partly undressed with a rope around her neck. Allen was convicted of kidnapping, attempted rape and murder.

Betty Lee, a mother of five in her 30s was stranded at a Farmington convenience store when Fry and an accomplice offered her a ride home to Shiprock. She realized something wasn’t right and tried to flee. She was stabbed in the chest and her clothes pulled off. She tried to run away and hide, but Fry hit her over the head with a sledgehammer. He was convicted of kidnapping, attempted rape and murder.

The heinous nature of the crimes wasn’t in doubt. The landmark court ruling turned on whether their sentences were disproportionate punishments that were invalid after the repeal of the death penalty.

Law school ahead

Vigil was working toward a degree in accounting at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces when she decided to apply to the University of New Mexico Law School.

“I thought about what was next and had always wanted to pursue a profession where I could help others,” she said. “My mother just kind of instilled that in me before her passing – that what we do is help others who are less fortunate.”

“I chose to go to New Mexico State because my older sister was there and felt it was a good university for me. We had to fund our studies and university education through grants and scholarships and loans and so forth. I was able to do that by attending New Mexico State and love that I am an Aggie. My father said before he passed that he had sent five daughters to New Mexico State University, but he was still a Lobo at heart.”

A fan of Mary Walters

Vigil was the third woman to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, following Pamela Minzner and Petra Jimenez Maes. She notes that she should have been number four – recounting a story that resonates with a couple generations of women lawyers in New Mexico.

Mary Walters was admitted to the state bar in 1962 after graduating from the UNM law school and was the first woman to serve in New Mexico as a District Court judge. She also was the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court, appointed by then-Gov. Toney Anaya in 1984.

But Walters, who died in 2001, was never formally selected as chief justice by her colleagues.

Nonetheless, her portrait now hangs in the hall of chief justices at the Supreme Court, thanks to Minzner, who Vigil says “insisted that an order be entered by the New Mexico Supreme Court recognizing Mary Walters as a chief justice.”

Minzner, known for her kindness, keen intellect and professionalism, died in 2007 after a battle with cancer.

“That order was signed just days before Pam’s passing and it is one of the most wonderful contributions that Pamela Minzner made to the legacy of the court in recognizing Mary Walters,” Vigil said.

It is a story that clearly touches Vigil, who says that “one of the beautiful aspects of that room is that Mary Walters’ portrait” hangs there.

A fan of Justice Daniels

Role models and mentors? There are many. Vigil cites Minzner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Supreme Court colleague Charles Daniels, who retired from the court in December 2018 and died nine months later from complications of ALS.

“I value the opportunity to have worked with Justice Daniels on this court. He was an inspiration, I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be his colleague. His unique brilliance and good humor. He continues to be an inspiration to me.”

Frustrations and challenges? “I think it is incumbent on the two other branches of government to ensure there are adequate resources to support and fund our court system. That becomes increasingly more challenging as we move forward with limited resources.

“I think it is important that judges be compensated in a manner that enables them or the profession to attract qualified candidates to the bench. We all know New Mexico judges are at the bottom the list when it comes to judicial compensation in comparison to other states.”

Would she favor removing the requirement in New Mexico that judges stand for one partisan election after their names are put forward by the Judicial Nominating Commission and they are appointed by the governor? She answers by saying it “would be good to remove politics from the appointment or election process for judges.”

As for discussions in Washington about expanding the U.S. Supreme Court, Vigil isn’t ready to embrace that, but points to the refusal of the Republican-controlled Senate to hear President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland prior to the election in 2016.

“I’m not sure expanding the Supreme Court is the answer,” she said. “I would just urge our lawmakers to fulfill their constitutional duty of confirming a sitting president’s nominee regardless of when that nomination is made…. I would stand by that position more than reacting to it by expanding the Court.”

Vigil has accumulated many awards during her judicial tenure, but demurs when asked which of them stands out. “I think it’s not so much awards that matter” but that “my work and trying to improve the lives of children and families has been some of the most gratifying endeavors in my professional career.”

Barbara Vigil, left, on the ranch with Virgil Trujillo, center with hat, and Harold Valencia. (Courtesy of Barbara Vigil)

Ranching and reading

Now that she’s off the bench, Vigil will have more time for her ranching roots, reading and travel.

“My sisters and I have continued the family legacy and have embarked on raising cattle,” she says. That means getting out in the field for chores that include branding. “It makes you realize how much it takes to do that type of work.”

Vigil has a keen interest in history and in particular New Mexico’s unique connection to Spain. “For years I have traveled to Spain on pretty much an annual basis and have worked to develop this mutual understanding of our connection to Spain.” She has lectured at the Madrid Law Institute.

And there is no shortage of preferred reading material waiting for her attention.

“I have many books stacked up. Being on the Supreme Court, we do a tremendous amount of reading every day.”

She will continue to maintain a residence in Santa Fe, which she shares with husband Ian.

“Our main home will always be in Santa Fe,” but they also spend time in Los Angeles where Ian is involved in commercial real estate.

They met through a mutual friend and married in 2017.

Next up? Who knows?

What’s next for Barbara Vigil?

“I will miss the job. But I am hopeful that I will continue to serve New Mexico, to serve the greater good, in some way.”

Might that include running for elective office? “I have no plans to run for office as of today,” she said. “It will be serving in some other way that is yet to be determined.”

Beyond that, she has set her sights on “just taking care of myself and making sure I’m as balanced and feel as healthy as I can.”

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