Born to a humble family of sharecroppers in southern Arkansas, Charles W. Daniels was the first member of his family to go to high school, and ultimately, he would go on to serve two terms as New Mexico’s chief justice.
Daniels passed away in his home on September 1, at the age of 76, almost eight months after his retirement. Seven weeks before, he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Through his storied life, Daniels worked as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney as well as a law professor. He spent his legal career fighting for justice and the rights of the citizens of this country. He worked towards that goal by reforming the monetary bail system in state courts as well as by guiding New Mexico Supreme Court’s attempts to reform conservatorship and adult guardianship laws and regulations.
John Boyd, Daniels’ law partner of many years, described him as a person who came from very humble origins, but through his brilliant and energetic personality, managed to rise through the ranks and become a person of influence. He also described his strong belief in justice for all and equal treatment in the courts. Boyd described Daniels’ frustration with the inequalities of the present system.
Charles Daniels was at the NM Supreme Court from 2007 to 2017, serving as the chief justice from 2010 to 2012 and from 2016 to 2017.
Judith K. Nakamura, chief justice, called Daniels a real titan of the law and described his passing as a tough blow to the state. She also stated that every single New Mexican has benefited from Daniels’ lifelong pursuit of an impartial and fair justice system.
He is survived by four children, an adopted son from Hong Kong, nine grandchildren, and his wife, Randi McGinn.
Coming From Nothing Was a Great Advantage
Daniels spent his early childhood in Arkansas, where his parents were farming ten acres of land with a borrowed mule while residing in a simple shack with no electricity or running water.
Daniels called his upbringing a great advantage since he considered everything a blessing. He said that he considered himself extraordinarily lucky when he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2007.
His family moved to Albuquerque when he was only six years old, he went on to study at Highland and Sandia high schools.
After a semester at UNM, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Greenland and then later on Tucson. Daniels attended the University of Arizona, finishing his service and his degree at the same time.
Afterward, he returned to Albuquerque, enrolled in law school and finally graduated first in his class. Later on, he would earn his master’s degree in law from Georgetown University.
Over the next 50 years, Daniels’ career included teaching at the UNM School of Law as well as practicing in civil rights law and criminal defense. When the then governor Bill Richardson appointed Daniels to the Supreme Court, he stated that Daniels was chosen for his outstanding reputation, keen intellect, and unwavering commitment to the law.
A Titan Outside the Law
Daniels was also an active person outside the law. He was a masterful bass player and a household name on the local music scene since the ’70s. He started playing at roadhouses and parties, and his latest venture in the music scene was with The Incredible Woodpeckers, which numbered two retired judges in its ranks in addition to Daniels himself. His biggest claim to fame as a musician might be a guest role as a guitarist in the music video for Brooks & Dunn’s smash hit “Brand New Man.”
He was also a well-known motorhead; he was in love with the rumble of vintage race cars, which lead him to start racing at the age of 50, even at one point racing at the Texas Motor Speedway.
A Magnificent Legal Mind
Boyd described Daniels as a man of absolute honesty and unwavering ethics, who never cut a corner. Boyd went on to praise his standing in the law community both as a criminal defense lawyer and a supreme court judge.
As a Supreme Court Judge, Daniels fostered a collegial culture, often reminding the other justices that they can “disagree without being disagreeable,” Nakamura stated in an interview. She went on to call his pretrial justice advocacy the most important factor behind the greatest justice reforms in New Mexico history.
Time for Goodbyes
Even though his illness progressed faster than anyone expected, Daniels never felt sorry for himself; he even considered himself lucky, said McGinn. She explained that when you receive a fatal diagnosis, people realize that they’re running out of time to say the things they want.
After the word about Daniels’ diagnosis spread, the calls, visitors, and emails flooded in, every single one describing how Daniels inspired them to be ethical, work hard, become lawyers, or find a way to balance the harsh workload with other interests.
McGinn, also an incredibly accomplished lawyer, stated that Daniels was a true partner, who celebrated her accomplishments as his own.
She described him as wonderful and kind in a world where kindness is a rare commodity.