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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   May 2010

 

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Bench Strength

Edith Gutierrez, Silver City's first female judge, looks back on a history-making career. .

 

Story and Photos by Richard Mahler

 

 

How does a diminutive — "four-foot eleven and three-quarters inches" — Hispanic woman from a humble family and without so much as a high school diploma become the first female judge in Silver City history? Edith Gutierrez doesn't have a one-word answer. But spend an hour with this friendly, expansive woman and she drops a few hints.

Judge
Edith Gutierrez stands with family photos and a bronze eagle, which formerly decorated her courtroom.

"I'm very persistent," declares this daughter of a cowboy and homemaker, a Grant County native who retired March 31 after five years as a municipal judge. "Mom and dad, when they brought me up, we were very poor but they showed us kids how to be hard, honest workers."

Luck, too, may have played a role in her success, Edith concedes, but the life-story she relates suggests otherwise.

"I was born on the McKinney Ranch near Tyrone," she begins, settling onto a living room sofa in a modest rented house near Brewer Hill. It's the sort of place that has the warm, comfortable feel of daily use, where friends and family come and go all day long, their "hellos" and "goodbyes" sealed by hugs, kisses and "I love yous." Edith is dressed casually in a flower-embroidered blouse, pleated slacks and stylish sandals, her auburn hair bracketing an alert, smiling face.

She leans forward as she talks, eager to share yet not boastful: "My father, Richard Serna, was working for the McKinney Ranch when I was born, although he also worked at a dairy and at the Kearney Mine. Later [our family of seven children] moved to Pinos Altos Road. We had cows, horses, chickens, turkeys and pigs. My mother, Blasa, stayed at home and looked after everything. You see, when I was growing up, a girl became either a secretary, a teacher or a housewife. Many families did not want women working outside the home at all. They wanted them out of the house and married by the time they were 18."

The Sernas were not much different. "In my family, the women didn't work," Edith recalls matter-of-factly. "They just didn't. So I broke the mold, I guess." Yet her parents believed that "children had to help out. In the olden days, many parents might take kids out of school in sixth grade because they wanted them at home or to go out and earn money. They needed their help simply to survive." Her father, Edith says, helped her to become "a strong woman" by encouraging her to speak up for herself. "I was very opinionated," Edith admits, "but I think I earned his respect."

Edith went to work at 14 and didn't stop until this spring, 51 years later. "I've washed dishes in restaurants," she sighs, "cleaned houses, and done a lot of clerical work. I've been a bank teller, teacher's aide, insurance agent and receptionist." She also got married — to Pat Gutierrez of Gila — and they raised four children and a foster son. A high school drop-out, Edith eventually earned her GED certificate (while doing secretarial work for the school superintendent) and completed many court-related training sessions.

"I've had a lot of on-the-job training," she says. "That's really how I educated myself. I'm not a scholar." She has insisted on doing her best at any assigned task that came her way: "I am a very determined woman."



That steady determination was put to the test 19 years ago when Edith Gutierrez was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It was a battle," she allows, "but I've been cancer-free for many years." Her treatment in Tucson included six months of chemotherapy and she lost all her hair. "I wore a wig," she says. "I wore a turban. Even my eyebrows disappeared." But it all returned over time, and Edith has been cancer-free since the early 1990s.

She lost her insurance job during treatment, however, and after four months of unemployment she was hired in 1992 by the late municipal Judge Asa Kelly as a court clerk. After a shake-up following the embezzlement of over $50,000 by another employee, Gutierrez was promoted to Court Administrator and reorganized a department that had not yet entered the computer age. Far from it. "When I started," she recalls, "reports and records were being written out by hand or typed on old clunker typewriters. Money was kept in a bag because there was no cash register. The filing system was not alphabetized."

Edith rose to the occasion, remembering the core values imprinted by her mother and father: "They taught us to tell the truth, to be respectful and professional." Soon Silver City's municipal court was recognized as one of the best-organized in New Mexico and its administrator was traveling throughout the state to mentor judges and help other courts become more efficient and professional. Edith advanced in a dozen years to alternate judge.

"Our accounting procedures changed dramatically and we watched every penny. I expanded the staff, got things automated, and made capital improvements," she says, describing a facility — formerly a bank, city hall and even a gun shop — burdened by a leaky ceiling, lousy security, threadbare orange rug, no hot water and an inside door used by patrons of next door's Buffalo Bar. Even the judicial bench, a long board covered with carpet, needed updating. There was no janitorial service, so Edith cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed floors. "I couldn't believe it," she whispers, rolling deep brown eyes.

A high school diploma or its equivalent is required in New Mexico in order to serve as a municipal court judge, along with residency within the municipality and 40 hours of specific judicial training, followed by annual workshops updating the law. "Rulings from the bench are considered legal and binding," says Edith. But the jurisdiction of municipal courts is limited to city ordinances, including those pertaining to traffic, animal control and various codes. Incidents covered by state or federal statutes, as well as vehicle accidents involving bodily injury, go before higher courts.

In a typical day, Edith might deal with dogs that bite, drivers who run red lights and signs posted improperly. She might also officiate in a wedding or two. (Full disclosure: Judge Gutierrez married me and my wife, Stacey Austin, in her courtroom in December 2008.)

"I will always cherish the special moments that people shared with me as they got married," says Edith. "I had plenty of those."



But Edith is perhaps most proud of her judicial record on the bench. Her living room displays an American flag and a bronze stature of an eagle, which stand out among the many photos of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The crouching eagle, discovered in a downtown antique shop, found a home in her courtroom soon after Edith's first election in March 2005, in which she defeated two other candidates. "I tried to be firm, fair, courteous and impartial with all who came before me," notes Edith, "and I never once had a complaint filed with the Office of Judicial Standards."

Silver City Police Chief Ed Reynolds concurred during a recent retirement ceremony, praising Judge Gutierrez for raising the standards of the municipal court and making many improvements during her tenure. At the same event, Mayor James Marshall thanked the departing judge for "putting in long hours" as well making a strong commitment in service to Silver City.

In 2008, Edith received an unsolicited letter from Julie McIntyre, who had appeared before her in connection with a seat belt citation. McIntyre sat through two prior cases before her own case was called, noting afterward that the judge "responded with care, compassion and integrity. You clearly had no interest in abusing power. You listened to the details of our plights and spoke clearly without denigrating us or causing damage to our souls. You responded without judgment or condemnation." A judge's job is not easy, the letter continued: "You see the gamut of suffering that is part of life, yet you have inside of you an inherent goodness."

Judge Gutierrez, McIntyre told me recently, still has her "highest regards. I knew it was important to let her know what an impact she had on me that day."

This letter, the judge confides with a catch in her voice, "made me cry and cry."

Asked about incidents that brought her other sorts of satisfactions, Edith describes "immobilizing" the skateboards of young men who repeatedly broke the Town of Silver City's skateboarding rules. "I had them do community service," she remembers, "and they were itching to get their boards back." The judge tucked them in a janitor's closet until the youths completed assigned tasks. Years later, one fellow walked up, introduced himself, and thanked her. "He had joined the military and found a real path in life," says Edith. "In the end, he was glad I immobilized that skateboard."

Another young man called the judge to thank her for intervening in his life, too. Edith had taken steps to divert him from gangs and criminal activity. "At the time this person came before me as a troubled teenager," she recalls, "his dad was gone, his mother was in drug rehab, and he was in charge of his little brother and sister. The poor guy was in and out of jail, with a file that kept growing. I assigned him to do community service with me, feeding him pizza and burritos when he got hungry. Eventually, I got his grandparents to look after the younger siblings and sent officers to check on him at home. That drove away his friends who were in gangs." The former delinquent recently revealed that he is now going to college and deeply involved in church work.

Turnaround situations like these are among the deepest satisfactions of being a judge, Edith adds. Through it all, she preferred to wear her judicial gown and preside from the bench, rather than adjudicate in a private office. "I wore my robes as a way of showing respect to people in the community," she explains. "I thought there was a need to earn their trust," by conducting the court's business openly and with dignity. A woman of short stature in a position long held by tall, big men, it took time to win acceptance in some quarters.

"I'm very proud of my ethnic background and I hope I represented Hispanic women well," Edith says, adding that she remembers holding jobs where employees were barred from speaking Spanish or were hired to fill a Hispanic quota. "To be held up as an example of what women can accomplish — it's awesome."



Edith Gutierrez's older daughter, Annette, uses the same word — "awesome" — to describe her mother. "Can you report how proud we are of our mom?" she asks, on behalf of herself and Edith's other children.

Mom beams and returns the compliment: "Annette is my tomboy," she says, describing a woman whose skills range from clerical to computer to construction. Earlier in the week, Annette had passed a test for a commercial drivers' license and accepted a new position in Alaska that will include truck driving.

"Look around now and you see women doctors, professors, athletes and all sorts of things," marvels Edith, who sometimes addresses audiences of school-age Hispanic girls. "When I first saw a lady astronaut, I thought, 'My God, we can be anything we want.' And that's why I believe an education is so very important. Just look at the scholarships and other opportunities available to young women today."

As we resume our conversation, the cozy house on the dead-end street fills up with people. A grandson arrives with a baby in his arms and the little girl's mother presents the great-grandchild to Edith for a cuddle and a kiss. Minutes later, the kitchen is filled with the aroma of a hot lunch, the giggling of a happy infant, and the bustle of still more drop-in visitors. Everyone chatters and laughs good-naturedly. The quiet home is transformed into a beehive of activity, and Edith seems invigorated by the sprightly energy of offspring and in-laws 40 or more years her junior. All told, there are 11 grandchildren and four great-grandkids.

"What do you plan to do during your retirement?" I ask, concluding our interview.

Edith looks around, as if the answer is self-evident: "I'll visit family — my other daughter, Jacqueline, and her children in Oklahoma. I'll go to see some cousins in Arizona, then another in Colorado. But mostly I'll look forward to spending time with my husband, Pat, and fixing up our house in Gila." (Pat, a disabled former Town of Silver City employee, has maintained the family home in the Gila River Valley during Edith's judgeship.)

Before we part, Edith makes sure I know how pleased she is that Sonya Ruiz, who worked under Gutierrez as administrator, succeeded her as judge following March elections. "We are in good hands," Edith insists, "and I admire her integrity, intelligence and knowledge of the court." She also praises the town manager, Alex Brown, crediting him with recognizing the "separation of powers" between the court and other branches of municipal government. "He hasn't allowed things to continue as they once did, regardless of what was proper."

And then the compact, gracious lady who started out in a "very poor family" on a dusty ranch only to become a history-making judge stands up, shakes my hand, and goes looking for more cuddles and kisses.



Richard Mahler is a freelance writer based in Silver City, where he leads walking tours of downtown. Learn more at www.richardmahler.com

 




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