Longtime civil rights attorney Davis, 69, dies unexpectedly - Albuquerque Journal

Longtime civil rights attorney Davis, 69, dies unexpectedly

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Phil Davis, a longtime New Mexico attorney referred to as “Mr. Civil Rights of New Mexico” by one colleague, died unexpectedly last week. He was 69.

For more than 40 years, Davis was a stalwart of civil rights law in New Mexico, serving as counsel on major cases and as a mentor to up-and-coming attorneys, fellow lawyers said.

Maureen Sanders, who graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law with Davis in the late 1970s and served on an American Civil Liberties Union legal panel with him, said Davis’ death has sent a jolt through the legal community.

Phil Davis

“I’m having a hard time talking to you,” she said Tuesday. “It was the loss of a trusted colleague. There are some people in this world you always expect to be there. It was a jolt to me and many others.”

Rachel Higgins, an Albuquerque attorney, said for decades many UNM law school graduates have studied Davis’ cases. For 20 years, Davis taught courses there on a variety of subjects.

“Any law student who has gone to UNM who has any interest in working New Mexico civil rights cases hears about Phil Davis before they meet Phil Davis,” she said.

Higgins said in the last 10 years she was co-counsel with Davis on several matters.

“The thing about Phil, he took all sorts of cases, big and small, as long as it was a righteous cause,” she said.

Davis was one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in McClendon vs. the City of Albuquerque, which was brought over conditions at the Bernalillo County jail; and in Jackson vs. Fort Stanton Hospital and Training School, which revolved around the treatment of people with developmental disabilities in state-supervised housing. Davis also was one of the attorneys who represented prison inmates over the years in the Duran Consent Decree.

All three of those cases have stretched for decades and cost taxpayers millions of dollars as the public institutions were reformed under the eye of a federal judge.

Sanders and Davis successfully argued before the state Supreme Court in the 1990s that indigent women had a right to abortions funded by the state.

He was a strong defender of First Amendment rights and an opponent of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from civil liability, she said.

Davis was also a successful mediator.

“I think his motivation was that he cared about people and that every person should be treated fairly – particularly by our governmental institutions,” Sanders said.

Nick Davis, Davis’s son, said his father died at the family’s home last Thursday. Nick, who is also an attorney, works at the law firm his father started. He was still actively practicing up until his unexpected death.

Nick said his father is also survived by his wife, Lee Davis, daughter, Dr. Rachel Rankin, and four grandchildren.

Outside of the legal world, Davis enjoyed cooking, fly fishing and downhill skiing, according to his website. He took up refereeing soccer matches after watching his children play the sport. Nick said his father ultimately became an experienced ref who called local high school tournaments and college matches around the region, including for the UNM Lobos.

Nick said his father approached soccer matches in a similar fashion to litigation, more specifically mediation, when he strived to call a match as fairly as possible.

“It was a hobby on the side,” Nick said. “But it really balanced with his legal work.”

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