A day after he stepped down from the bench, now-retired District Court Judge Freddie Romero was honored by a host of well-wishers Friday at the Chaves County Courthouse.
Romero, 62, officially retired Thursday, Feb. 28, following more than a decade as Division II Judge in the 5th Judicial District, which includes Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties.
An attorney who handled mostly civil litigation, Romero was appointed to the bench in 2005 by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Despite being a Democrat in a heavily Republican part of New Mexico, he never had an opponent when his seat was on the ballot.
He said after the celebration Friday that he enjoyed his 14-year tenure as a judge, but feels now is a good time to move on.
“It was just time for a new chapter,” he said.
Romero returned to the court Friday, not as a judge, but as an object of attention, affection and praise. Friends, local attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors and courthouse employees filled the benches, unleashing applause and uproarious laughter.
Colleagues from his days practicing law and other 5th Judicial District Court judges spoke highly of Romero’s time in the court.
“He is admired and respected as a judge for his excellence, his dedication, his tireless work ethic, his accomplishments and for just being an all-around good guy,” Judge James Hudson said.
Judge Kea Riggs said Romero will be missed.
“Judge Romero has provided balance, levity and depth to the bench for many years,” Riggs said.
Judge Dustin Hunter also called Romero “a class act.”
“He is somebody that all of us can strive to be like and while somebody might be able to physically fill your small shoes, no one will be able to fill the hole that is left in this courthouse or in our hearts,” Hunter said.
The celebration at times had the feel of a roast.
Hudson invoked a trip Romero took with his family to the Charcoal Canyon last year as an example of Romero’s “keen sense of direction.” Romero managed with that sense of direction to turn what was supposed be a 1-mile hike into a 9-mile hike, Hudson said.
“Just don’t call him Gilligan on a three-hour tour,” Hudson said, provoking laughter from the audience.
Tim Cusack, a local attorney and longtime friend of Romero, said when Romero was sworn in as a judge in 2005, he was no longer known as Freddie but by the title Judge.
“From that day in 2005 until yesterday, there were other names that litigants called you and attorneys called you, but this is not the appropriate places to use some of those names,” Cusack said.
Speakers also ribbed Romero for his foibles, quirks and lack of hair. Cusack said that when Romero ascended to the position of judge, he entered a world of locked doors and labyrinthine hallways.
“You were like Rapunzel with her long hair in the tower, but you have no hair,” Cusack said.
Judge Hunter said that on his first day as a judge, he found a handwritten letter on his desk from Romero.
“I did not know it was from Judge Romero at first because I could not read it,” he said, alluding to Romero’s poor penmanship.
The ceremony ended with Romero himself speaking to the crowd. He said that on his first day as judge, when he arrived at the courthouse, he asked himself, “Uh oh, what do I do now?”
Romero stated he asked himself that same question when, out of habit, he started getting ready for work on the first day of his retirement.
Many other judges served alongside him in the district. Romero said he and those judges “grew up together” trying cases together and against one another.
The 5th Judicial District is known as a court that functions well. Romero said he thinks part of that is that the judges make decisions, not based on political party, affiliation with any organization or by personal ideology, but based on the law as their guiding force.
He also gave thanks to the courthouse staff who helped a great deal, especially when he first got onto the bench.
“I could not have done it without them. No judge, no judge can function without a close, loyal, absolutely competent staff with historical knowledge of how that courthouse works,” Romero said.
The work that goes on in the courthouse, he added, is not solely done by a judge, but is a team effort with contributions from the many courthouse employees who type up decisions, file documents, sign papers and assist the public.
Though his career has been rewarding, Romero said, it has had its pressures. He has received calls at 3 a.m. from law enforcement officers asking him to sign off on a warrant, and he can’t go out to restaurants without people asking him about his job or the cases that come before him.
Romero said a judge’s work cannot be confined to the courthouse. The areas of knowledge a judge must have go well beyond the law, and — with the advent of speciality courts such as drug courts, juvenile courts and veterans courts — require more knowledge and more interaction with the community on the part of judges.
Judges have to go beyond the courthouse to find out what the community needs and keep up with the best scientific evidence-based approaches to help the people that come before the court.
“You can’t do that sitting in the office,” he said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.