Judge was a 'very generous and caring person' - Albuquerque Journal

Judge was a ‘very generous and caring person’

U.S. District Judge James A. Parker, pictured in 2007 as he celebrated 20 years on the bench. Parker served the District of New Mexico for more than three decades. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

U.S. District Judge James A. Parker drew national attention in 2000 when he apologized to a man who pleaded guilty to mishandling nuclear secrets and reproached top federal decision makers who, in Parker’s words, “embarrassed our entire nation” by their handling of the case.

Parker died Sept. 16 after serving the District of New Mexico for more than three decades. He was 85.

Friends and colleagues described Parker as the consummate gentleman who treated everyone with respect and stepped down reluctantly last year after 35 years on the bench.

“If I had to speak to any one characteristic to define him, it would be that he was unfailingly a gentleman at all times, with everyone,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez, who served with Parker since she joined the court in 1993.

“I think everybody that knew him would also say he was a very nice man,” Vázquez said.

Parker’s kindly manner earned him the nickname “gentleman Jim,” friends and colleagues said.

“He was a very generous and caring person,” said retired Senior U.S. District Judge C. LeRoy Hansen, a longtime friend of Parker’s. “He enjoyed the law and was really thorough in his study and application of the law.”

Parker presided over some of the most complex and high-profile cases before the District of New Mexico, including litigation over the endangered silvery minnow, and a lawsuit that led to closure of two state institutions for people with severe disabilities.

He also presided over what might be New Mexico’s highest profile case: the federal government’s prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee was charged in 1999 with 59 criminal counts and accused by the government of stealing classified documents on behalf of the People’s Republic of China.

A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, Lee pleaded guilty in September 2000 to a single count of mishandling nuclear secrets after spending nine months in solitary confinement. As part of the plea deal, the government agreed to drop the remaining 58 counts and agreed to his release from custody.

Parker sentenced Lee to 278 days in jail – one day less than Lee had already served – allowing Lee to leave the courthouse a free man.

In an extraordinary statement Parker read from the bench, he apologized to Lee for denying him bail.

“I feel that the 278 days of confinement for your offense is not unjust,” Parker told Lee in September 2000. “However, I believe you were terribly wronged by being held in custody pretrial in the Santa Fe County Detention Center under demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions.”

Parker also admonished the federal government for abusing its power in Lee’s prosecution.

“I am truly sorry that I was led by our executive branch of government to order your detention last December,” Parker said. “I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch.”

Parker’s statement was widely reported and reprinted in full in The New York Times.

Early life

A Houston native, Parker graduated from Rice University in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He graduated first in his class from the University of Texas School of Law in 1962.

Parker and his wife, the late Florence Fisher Parker, then moved to Albuquerque, where they raised two children.

Given his credentials, “he easily could have gone to Houston, Dallas, New York or Washington, D.C., and joined the big firms,” Johnson said. Instead, Parker chose to settle in New Mexico. “As a child, he had vacationed out here and really liked Albuquerque.”

He practiced law for 25 years at the Modrall Law Firm in Albuquerque until President Ronald Reagan nominated him in 1987 to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

Parker held the post for 35 years, stepping down in September 2021, making him one of the longest-serving district judges in the history of the District of New Mexico. He served as chief judge from 2000 to 2003.

“He really hated to pick up his office and leave the court,” Judge Vázquez said of Parker. “He took his work very seriously. He loved his work. His work meant the world to him.”

An avid runner, skier and fly fisherman, Parker bought a ranch outside Durango, Colorado, which became a gathering place for family, friends and colleagues, his family said in a written statement.

Parker’s concept of service included traveling frequently across New Mexico to hear cases in the communities they affected, said Paul Baca, who served as Parker’s court reporter for decades.

“Judge Parker would try a case in Albuquerque if it was an Albuquerque case,” Baca said. “We drove down many times – many, many times – to Las Cruces. But we also tried cases in Roswell.”

Baca credits Parker with keeping in service a small federal courthouse in Roswell. Parker also heard cases in Durango, he said.

“Judge Parker always wanted to make sure that all those courthouses were used so we can keep them open,” he said.

Baca routinely served as Parker’s driver for out-of-town trips. The two men once drove to Cuba to try a federal case in a magistrate court, where Parker used a card table as his court bench.

“These plaintiffs had no money, they were so poor,” Baca said. Parker explained that he wanted to spare the parties the expense of traveling to Albuquerque, Baca said.

Parker once personally paid for food and lodging for an indigent Native American juror who had to remain in Albuquerque for the duration of a trial, Baca said.

In one case, Parker used persuasion to get the opposing attorneys to stop bickering in his courtroom.

“They were not getting along,” Baca said of the lawyers. Parker called them into his chambers and told them to settle their differences over lunch.

“He took out his credit card and said, ‘You two go to lunch and work things out. And when we come back after lunch, there is going to be a different mood in the court.'”

Parker was a diligent note taker, Baca said. “He took such copious notes during these proceedings that he often read back an answer or a question at an attorney’s request before I had an opportunity to comb through my court reporting tape,” he said.

Other key cases

Parker presided over yearslong litigation in the case of the endangered silvery minnow after environmental groups sued federal water managers in 1999 over protections for the tiny fish.

Parker ruled in 2002 that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must consider using water meant for Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District farmers to help protect the minnow, which only survives in a portion of the Rio Grande.

Parker issued a ruling in 1990 that changed New Mexico’s treatment of people with severe disabilities.

In Jackson v. Los Lunas, Parker found that the state’s two institutions for severely disabled people – the Los Lunas and Ft. Stanton hospitals – violated the constitutional rights of more than 100 people who lived in the facilities. The state shuttered both institutions in 1996.

Parker is survived by his wife, Janice Butler Parker, children Roger Parker and Pamela Parker Jones, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 13 at the Cathedral of the St. John, 318 Silver SW. Services will be followed by a celebration of life reception at Hotel Albuquerque, Alvarado Room, 800 Rio Grande NW.

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