ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Judge Elizabeth Whitefield, the “bright spirit” at the helm of the Family Court Division, is retiring after nearly a decade as a District Court judge and three decades as a family law attorney.
When then-Gov. Bill Richardson appointed her to the position in 2007, he said she had been called one of the best family law attorneys in America. But it’s not Whitefield’s lengthy résumé that Chief Judge Nan Nash said the courthouse will miss most.
“It’s not really the experience,” Nash said. “It’s just like a really bright spirit.”
The University of New Mexico alumna and Pennsylvania native brought unwavering enthusiasm, dedication and cheer to the court, Nash said. She worked tirelessly as the presiding judge to ensure that the division functioned effectively and innovatively.
Though her retirement went into effect last Saturday, Whitefield still hopes to spend time in the Downtown courthouse as a pro tem judge, helping to ease the heavy workload her colleagues face. Each judge in the division balances around 1,300 cases at a time and signs about 5,000 orders per year.
While her days as a judge were filled with conflict – divorces, custody battles, property divisions – Whitefield said she will miss the opportunity to help guide people through emotional and traumatic moments.
“You get a chance to protect the children as much as you can, if the parents are truly dysfunctional,” Whitefield said. “If the parents are functional people but just going through a bad time, it’s an opportunity to educate them and kind of show them the right way to do things. Because whether we like it or not, most marriages end up in divorce.”
In an interview on her last day in office, Whitefield said her retirement was a “happy, sad event.” She said she was grateful for nine years working with talented people who are dedicated to family court.
“It’s time for new blood,” Whitefield said of her decision to retire. “There’s some fine younger family law lawyers that are out there, with lots of energy.”
Applications for appointment to the now vacant position will be accepted though Oct. 20, and the Judicial Nominating Commission will meet Oct. 31 to evaluate the candidates.
“There will be big shoes to fill,” Nash said, “and I hope we have strong applicants.”