Charles Daniels(1943 - 2019)

Charles W. Daniels

Charles Daniels was born in Arkansas in a sharecroppers shack without indoor plumbing or electricity. From those humble, but well-loved beginnings, he would go on to become a Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court.

One of his earliest memories at age 4 is going with his parents and 2 baby brothers, Martin and Paul, into the fields where they would pick cotton (no babysitters). His mother, Vivian Daniels, would give him a little sack which he would fill with enough cotton to make a pillow, then he would climb into the buckboard wagon and take a nap. Luckily, his father John Daniels, hated farming as much as did little Charles and moved the entire family to Albuquerque in 1948, where he got a much better job changing the tires on semi-trucks. His father would go on to self-teach himself accounting and become the bookkeeper for the large trucking company.

Charles was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. An admittedly mediocre high school student, he joined the Air Force one cold winter day in Albuquerque, after the recruiter promised he would be sent someplace warm. He was stationed in Greenland, near the Arctic Circle. During one of the long winter nights on his duty station, the directionless airman picked up a book about Clarence Darrow. Alone, in his bunk, it hit him like a lightning bolt â€" he wanted to be a lawyer like Darrow.

He began taking online college courses and, when he returned to the United States, moved his wife and two young daughters, Jeanette and Cheryl, to Arizona, where he was able to finish his undergraduate degree while working full time night shifts. After leaving the service, he attended the University of New Mexico Law School and, inspired by his mentor, Fred Hart, his team won the first Moot Court competition in 10 years and Charlie graduated first in his law school class. He was then accepted into the Prettyman Masters Trial Program at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. during the turbulent anti-war protests. He danced in front of the White House the night Richard Nixon resigned.

He returned to New Mexico and became a law professor at UNM Law School for five years, then entered private law practice with two of his students, John Boyd and David Freedman (later joined by Joe Goldberg and Nancy Hollander). They started their practice by representing Kerry Rodney Lee, a man who had a religious conversion and confessed to a murder in New Mexico for which 4 innocent men, members of the Vagos motorcycle gang, had been convicted and sent to death row. Charlie and his partners were able to free the innocent men and work out a plea for their guilty client.

Charlie would enter the New Mexico penitentiary after the February 2-3, 1980 bloody prison riots and help restore order and negotiate on behalf of the prisoners inside. As an ACLU lawyer, he assigned a woman lawyer, Roberta Cooper Ramo, to help Nancy Lopez get to play on the boys' high school golf team. He helped another high school student who was barred from participating in Boys State because he refused to state that he held Christian religious beliefs.

As a criminal defense lawyer, he represented innocent people caught up in suspicious circumstances and required the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt if his client was guilty. A client could have no better champion than Charles Daniels.

In 2007, Charlie was appointed to the New Mexico Supreme Court by Governor Bill Richardson, where he served for 12 years, including 2 terms as Chief Justice of the court. He participated with his colleagues in the Marriage Equality opinion; he authored the Brown v. State opinion, requiring judges to follow the New Mexico Constitution when setting bail; and voted to take the last two inmates off New Mexico's death row to serve life sentences. He was lucky to serve with thoughtful, remarkable men and women justices while on the court and to work with a wonderful court staff and clerks. As a cherry on top of this government job, while Chief Justice, he had the honor of marrying Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart.

He loved the law, but that was not all he loved. Music was a huge part of his life. He played electric bass in a rowdy bar band called Lawyers, Guns and Money. Bill, Pete, Michael, J.W. and Charlie were a fixture at the great New Mexico roadhouses like the Line Camp and the Golden Inn, where many New Mexicans learned to two step and swing dance to their covers and original songs. Charlie got to stand in as the bass player in Brooks and Dunn's first video for their single, "Brand New Man." For the last 20 years, he couldn't wait to play rock and roll with his friends, Tommy, Pete, Woody, Danny, William and Bill, as "The Incredible Woodpeckers."

At age 50, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by attending a Skip Barber racecar driving school. For the last 26 years he has raced locally at Sandia Motorsports Park and around the country, driving Legends cars, modifieds, trucks, and vintage Formula Fords. Most of the people he raced with never knew what he did in what he would tell them was "a government job." Assisted by his crack mechanic, Steve DeBerry and his daughter, Becky, his last time on the track was two months ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And he loved his large, diverse, interesting family and friends. Their love surrounded and held him up during these last few weeks. Now nurses, his daughters Jeanette Gurley and Cheryl Daniels Kifer, provided him with loving in home care. Seana Daniels Miracle made him laugh and provided peace. Heather McGinn encircled him with love and the happy sound of the laughter of small grandchildren. Axiao Daniels was his rock and constant helper in his final weeks. Jefferson and all the grandchildren, Lauren, Olivia, Emma, David, Jacob, Calder, baby Ansel, Cody and Colton, came to say goodbye. The great love of his life, Randi McGinn, was there by his bedside.

He died as he lived. Full-throttle, racing across the finish line, having given everything he had, out of gas, but laughing with a twinkle in his eye.

A memorial for Charles Daniels will be held at Popejoy Hall at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, September 15, 2019 when parking at the university is not enforced. An informal celebration of Charlie's life and a book and tie-gifting will follow starting at 4 p.m. at his home. Come hear some music, have some food and take away one of his books or ties.

Those wishing to continue the teaching and mentoring Charlie did to encourage young lawyers can make a donation to the Daniels Diploma scholarship at the UNM law school with the following link:


Funeral Home

Daniels Family Funeral Services
1100 Coal Ave Se Albuquerque, NM 87106
(505) 842-8800
Published in Albuquerque Journal from Sept. 7 to Sept. 8, 2019