In 1910 Doña Ana court reporter Olga Melinda Victoria Miller occupied the bench of her boss, Judge Wright, during an unexpected absence. Little did she know she would become the first woman judge in the history of New Mexico. Newspapers at the time said she “demonstrated a good knowledge of the law” and was endorsed as a judge pro tem. It was a while after that before women fully took their place at the judicial bench.
It was 1962 when Judge Mary Coon Walters took the First District Court bench. In 1993 Judge Martha Vazquez took double honors for being the first female and the first Latino American female to be appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Judge Carol Jean Vigil became the first Pueblo female judge in 1998, and Judge Angela Jewell took the bench in 1999 as the first female African-American judge. Following in these paths have been dozens of females taking a seat alongside their male counterparts.
The Paper. spoke with two retired judges about being women with gavels. The Honorable Judge Nan Nash was appointed to the Second Judicial District Court in January 2003 and held her position until she retired at the end of 2018. The Honorable Judge Cynthia Fry was appointed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2000 and retained her position until her retirement at the end of 2015.
New Mexico currently has a historic number of women judges on the judicial benches. What do you think this trend means?
Judge Fry: This reflects a natural and welcome evolution of the legal profession. My law school class at UNM was the first class with 50 percent women. When I first went on the bench in 2000, I was on the first three-judge panel consisting of three women. That was a novelty then, and it’s healthy that it’s no longer a novelty.
Judge Nash: The number of female attorneys have been steadily increasing upward over the past 50 years. The fact that New Mexico has a majority of female judges on both appellate courts is unique. Programs that encourage women to run for political office, such as Emerge, have supported this trend. Unfortunately, the trend also represents the historic low pay for judges and the continuing income gap that exists between male and female attorneys.
Does having a majority of female judges change the judicial landscape in New Mexico?
Judge Fry: Having more women in the judiciary is a positive development, because women bring perspectives different from those of men.
Judge Nash: Certainly, having a majority of female judges changes the judicial landscape in some ways. Many of the innovative court programs are developed and led by female judges. I think that female judges have also led to a more collaborative judiciary. But I don't think it changes the way that cases are decided. A judge's main allegiance is to the rule of law, and gender does not change that allegiance.
Some male attorneys I have talked with about becoming a judge say that the pay is a factor, and they can’t afford to be a judge. Does economics play into this trend?
Judge Fry: Judicial salaries in New Mexico lag behind those in our sister states, and that fact discourages many attorneys, both male and female, from seeking judicial office.
Judge Nash: Unfortunately yes.
When you took your first bench, did you feel like you were treated or viewed differently by your male counterparts?
Judge Fry: No; I had a very positive experience as a judge, and I never felt that I was treated differently by my male colleagues or by male attorneys. I was lucky enough to be mentored by three of my male colleagues when I first took the bench.
Judge Nash: I don't think that I was treated differently, but I do think a different standard is applied to women than to men. I think that male judges can more freely exert direct power than female judges can. It is still easy for female judges to be labeled as difficult or unpleasant when they are assertive.
Did you ever get threatened or feel unsafe because of your position?
Judge Fry: No. Again, I was very lucky to have an incredibly positive 15 years on the bench.
Judge Nash: Yes, I was involved in a very scary situation where an unhappy litigant threatened me and my family directly. I was not the only judge in my district that was threatened over time. This trend has been increasing in the U.S., and it is very unsettling.
It goes without saying that being a judge is a huge responsibility and has many challenging aspects. Can you talk about that challenge?
Judge Fry: I always found it very challenging to work on cases involving the abuse and/or neglect of children. Often those cases required us to decide whether someone’s parental rights should be terminated, and the circumstances were frequently pretty heart wrenching.
Judge Nash: It is very challenging to have responsibility for people's lives. From child custody to adult guardianships to criminal sentences, judges have to make decisions every day that significantly impact lives. Oftentimes these decisions must be made with incomplete and imperfect information.
Would you encourage young female attorneys to think about being a judge?
Judge Fry: I absolutely encourage young women to consider the judiciary as a career move. Looking back on it, I realize how invaluable it was to me to have to run a state-wide campaign. Having a variety of perspectives and experiences in the judiciary is really important in a healthy society.
Judge Nash: I would still encourage female attorneys to think about applying for judgeships. Running for office can be quite challenging and is time consuming but only lasts for a finite period of time. I would encourage lawyers to pursue the judiciary as a career but to be prepared for hard work that is required of judges these days.
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