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Supreme Court Chief Justice speaks at ENMU

A person can accomplish a lot during their lifetime if they can learn to master structure and discipline, according to New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Vigil.

Vigil spoke to a crowd at Eastern New Mexico University on Friday morning about the journeys of her life and careers.

“The law has given me a very fulfilling professional life,” she said. “I think the beauty of being a lawyer is that you can do a multitude of things; you can help people in your communities, you can work for the government, you can work for a private industry. You have a whole spectrum of opportunities and the law gives you a very broad education in the interrelationships of people.”

Vigil began with sharing her early life, which started when she was born in Albuquerque.

She spent the early part of her childhood in Taos before her family moved to Santa Fe, which she said was her home for the remainder of her formative years and into adulthood.

“I had a typical background and childhood,” she said. “We learned how to take care of and support each other.”

Vigil shared what she called a “significant event that in many respects formed who I am today”– the loss of her mother at age 12.

“She was the center of our family,” Vigil said. ” I come from a family of five girls and one son, and when my mom died, it was a pretty traumatic event.”

Vigil’s father then raised the children and decided to send them to a boarding school in Santa Fe called Saint Catherines, which at the time was primarily for Native American children, but open to non-native children as well.

It was there that Vigil said she learned the important lesson of being disciplined.

“The school was very structured, and I think that was a good thing,” she said. “Making sure you fulfill your obligations and keeping a schedule and being consistent can take you far.”

After graduating from Saint Catherines, Vigil said she went on to New Mexico State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“I thought I wanted to be a CPA until I really started thinking about it,” she said. “I was fortunate to enroll in the University of New Mexico School of Law where I got my juris doctorate.”

Vigil, who recently had her 30-year class reunion from law school, said she began her professional career in Las Cruces.

“I joined a private firm there and represented people with just about every type of legal issue that could come into a law firm,” she said. “I did a lot of estate planning and tax work as well as litigation and children’s court cases.”

After her five-year tenure in Las Cruces, Vigil moved back to Santa Fe where she served in the attorney general’s office and then later opened her own law firm.

She later decided to run for district court judge and was elected in Santa Fe.

“I took the position as the children’s court judge for the district and stayed in that role for about 10 years,” she said. “What I loved about that position was the opportunity to really try to make a difference in people’s lives; not only with the cases that were before me, but also with working on ways to collaborate in communities to provide services for at-risk youth and families in need of help.”

After a decade, Vigil decided it was time to leave the position.

“I think there always needs to be new blood coming in and offering new ideas and new ways of approaching problems,” she said.

She then decided to take the civil docket in Santa Fe and handled civil cases for the district for two years.

When a position on the New Mexico Supreme Court opened, Vigil decided to run for the seat and was elected in 2012. She became the chief justice in April of 2014, which is a two-year term that she will turn over to one of her colleagues in April of 2016.

As chief justice, Vigil said her job is to represent the judiciary around New Mexico and to make sure there are enough resources to operate. With “a lot of help,” she also oversees all of the administration of the courts.

“I’ve learned a lot; not only from the people I serve and my clients, but also through other lawyers and judges in the profession,” she said. “It’s a constant learning process. You’re always addressing issues that one doesn’t necessarily think about very often, and you have to study them very carefully.”

Vigil gave an example with a case the court will be considering on Monday.

“It’s whether a patient has a right to ask his or her doctor to help them end their life,” she said. “It’s a significant case that would have profound impact on individuals as well as governments, physicians and others. Whether I believe in it or not personally doesn’t matter–it’s not my personal views that I have to bring to the bench.”

Vigil’s opinion is also not the only one that will count, as there are five justices.

“I’m the newest member of the court and I’m one of five votes,” she said. “We all bring to the court unique perspectives about law because we all have different histories and experiences. I think that makes for a better court because it makes for a richer discussion of issues.”

When a student in the crowd expressed that she was interested in law but intimidated by it, Vigil encouraged her to push forward.

“I came from a very humble background; I was never exposed to law,” she said. “I didn’t have the resources and the capability to attend a law school out of state. I found that I received an excellent education in New Mexico, and I didn’t get into debt with the help of public assistance and grants.”

Vigil added that if a person works hard for their dreams and is disciplined, success will happen.

“Always be honorable in your work, especially as a lawyer, and remember that your reputation is very important,” she said. “Don’t ever feel like you can’t attain it; if I can do it, you can do it.”

After sharing her journey, Vigil headed to a recognition luncheon to speak in support of the Ask-a-Lawyer event, which took place in the Campus Union Ballroom from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The Ask-a-Lawyer program, sponsored by Ninth Judicial District Court in Portales in recognition of October being pro-bono month, gave the community a chance to get free legal consultations.

Ninth Judicial District Court Senior Court Attorney Benjamin S. Cross said there were 20 lawyers from Portales and Clovis in attendance, ready to offer advice in a number of areas including divorce, custody, bankruptcy, child support, personal injury, power of attorney, public benefits, unemployment and immigration.

According to the Deborah S. Dungan, Vigil’s attorney administrative assistant, the program began in 2012.

During the 2014 event that was held in Clovis, Dungan said local attorneys assisted 126 low-income individuals.

Cross said the most common legal issues that come up at the event have been consistent over the years.

He said that roughly 50 percent deal with family law (child support, custody, divorce, guardianship); 20 percent deal with housing (landlord/tenant, foreclosure, real estate law); 10 percent deal with personal injury; five percent deal with estate planning (will, probate); two percent deal with immigration; and the remaining 13 percent would be classified as “other.”


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