Nuestra Historia - The stories of the Las Vegas judgeship

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Having concluded the Centennial series — bringing it home to Las Vegas with the story of Gov. Ezequiel C de Baca — we now begin another titillating narrative. We will recount the history of the district judgeship in Las Vegas, and tell the story of the fascinating men who occupied that position through 1965.

Our self-imposed terminal date is the year legendary District Judge Luis E. Armijo passed away, after serving almost 40 years on the Las Vegas bench.

We will, however, recount the writer’s first-hand knowledge of the mad scramble and political intrigue which followed — to prevent then 42-year-old Donaldo A. “Tiny” Martinez from succeeding Judge Armijo.

Until the recent past — when two, and now three judges constitute the Fourth Judicial District Court — one judge alone occupied the powerful position. The few who sat on that lofty bench were all learned and scholarly attorneys, some colorful, one intemperate and controversial, and one who reigned supreme as a masterful political boss.

Among the first was Kirby Benedict, the hard-drinking country lawyer who President Lincoln refused to remove from the bench, saying Benedict knew more law drunk than all the others in New Mexico sober. Judge Benedict’s role in the Pablita Angel murder trial and hanging has been recounted previously, but we will recall other aspects of this early judge’s life. (See Myth, Legend or Fact, Nuestra Historia, Sept. 30 and Oct. 28, 2011.)

Another of the fascinating jurists who occupied the Las Vegas judgeship was Elisha Van Buren Long, who died here in 1928, at age 91. As chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, the Moses-bearded Long was district judge for Las Vegas, and presided over many early cases involving the Las Vegas Land Grant. It was under Elisha V. Long that a young Luis Armijo read (studied) the law, to later become one of the longest serving judges in New Mexico history.

William J. Mills, previously mentioned in our Centennial series, was also chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court and district judge for Las Vegas, and he too presided over several controversial cases involving the Las Vegas Land Grant. Mills gave up the judgeship in 1910, when he was appointed by President Taft as New Mexico’s last territorial governor.

The first elected district judge in Las Vegas, after statehood, was a crusty Irishman who remains the most ignoble of our judges. David Leahy — as a political protégé of Secundino Romero — served as district judge from 1912 to 1924, and presided over much of the decades-long litigation concerning the Mora Land Grant.     

In the old courthouse pictured in today’s column, Leahy presided — as Secundino’s pawn — over what is still considered New Mexico’s most notorious assault on free speech and freedom of the press. Leahy would later physically attack newspaper publisher Carl Magee in the lobby of the Meadows Hotel (El Fidel), resulting in the death of an innocent bystander, and another celebrated trial.

As a result of the controversy over the first Magee case, and due also to his intemperate demeanor, in 1924 Leahy was unseated by Luis E. Armijo, himself a protégé of Secundino Romero — though by then an erstwhile one.

(This would mark the beginning of the end of the Romero dynasty, when Armijo and his brother-in-law, Lorenzo Delgado, bolted from Secundino’s camp and formed their own Republican faction.)    

After defeating Leahy and the Romero machine in 1924, Luis Armijo would himself emerge as a political master, and he would be the sole occupant of the Las Vegas judgeship until 1965 — interrupted only once. In the Roosevelt landslide of 1936, Judge Armijo was unseated by Irwin S. Moise, the son of Jewish merchants from Guadalupe County.

Moise served but a single term, and Armijo reclaimed the judgeship in 1942, though Moise was always able to boast that he was the only man who ever defeated Louie Armijo. Moise would later serve on the New Mexico Supreme Court, and the Moise family remained prominent in ranching and business in Guadalupe County.

Judge Armijo, of course, became a legend in his own time, and for many years was the only Hispanic district judge in New Mexico. A scene often repeated in his courtroom — and witnessed with astonishment by the uninitiated — was Judge Armijo presiding over a case in which the state was represented by his brother, District Attorney Jose E. Armijo, and defense counsel was Judge Armijo’s son, Roberto L. Armijo.

Living just across the street from “his” courthouse, for almost four decades El Juez Armijo wielded enormous power over Mora, Guadalupe and San Miguel counties — both on and off the bench.

This is the story of our famed judges, and how they shaped the history of Las Vegas and the Fourth Judicial District.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.