|Former New Mexico Supreme Court Chief |
Justice Daniels died Sunday at age 76.
In the aftermath of a Journal series detailing abuses in the state’s guardianship/conservatorship system for the elderly, many in the industry and the judiciary defended the status quo. The alleged problems, they said, were overblown and the system worked just fine, thank you very much.
It would have been easy, and popular in some quarters, for then-Chief Justice Charles Daniels of the state Supreme Court to toe the party line.
Instead, he went to a town hall hosted by the Journal in the spring of 2017, where he sat in the audience – without fanfare – and took copious notes as people told their stories of being barred from seeing loved ones, family wishes being disregarded and estates wasted by court-appointed conservators.
Rather than defending the status quo, Daniels became a driving force in the court’s efforts to reform the guardianship/conservatorship system that now provides for greater transparency and mechanisms for families to challenge what they believe are injustices in the system.
A renaissance man who drove race cars and was an accomplished musician, Daniels approached issues with a brilliant legal mind and incredible work ethic. (Meet for coffee? He would say he was available anytime after 5 a.m.) The son of sharecroppers who farmed an Arkansas plot with a borrowed mule before moving to Albuquerque when he was 6, he was someone who wasn’t afraid to sit in the audience with regular folk and take notes.
Daniels died in his home Sunday at age 76. He had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seven weeks earlier, and it progressed rapidly, his wife, Randi McGinn, said.
A former law professor, criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, Daniels leaves a lasting legacy with his work.
On bail reform, he first wrote an opinion in 2014 that correctly pointed out that the bail bond system – or as he described it, “the money-for-freedom system” – that had been in place for decades violated the state Constitution, which required makeable bail in all but a handful of the most serious cases. Then, acknowledging something needed to be done for community safety, he became the driving force behind a constitutional amendment overhauling the bail bond system. He worked the halls of the Legislature, which sent it on to voters, who approved it overwhelmingly in 2018. The result: Hundreds of poor people who can’t afford to post a minor bail are no longer languishing in jail pending trial, while judges now have the authority – under the law – to order defendants who pose a serious danger to the community to be held without bail pending trial.
The National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies singled him out for special recognition last week as “a driving force behind changes to promote pretrial justice and public safety through evidence-based practices in New Mexico courts.”
Daniels, an Air Force veteran whose life changed when he read “Clarence Darrow for the Defense” while stationed 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle – or as he called it, the “northernmost outpost of humanity” – served on the Supreme Court from 2007 until his retirement Dec. 31. He was known for his collegiality and worked hard to keep politics out of the judiciary – once noting he had seen no difference in “judging” by colleagues who had been appointed by governors of different political parties. He wrote more than 100 opinions, but never a full dissent.
The current chief justice, Judith Nakamura, a Republican, recalled one of their final conversations: “One of the last things he said to me sitting in my office was, Judy, we’ll always be friends. The issues don’t define that.”
McGinn, a powerhouse trial lawyer who practiced law with her husband of 30 years, said he didn’t feel sorry for himself with his diagnosis. In fact, he felt lucky because “people realize you’re running out of time to say the things you want to.”
Described by former partner John Boyd as a man of “absolutely scrupulous honesty and ethics” who never cut a corner, Daniels leaves the law and his state better than he found it.
Nakamura is not exaggerating when she says, “Our state has lost a titan of the law.”
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
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Editorial: Legacy of justice