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Nation’s first Native American female judge dies

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TESUQUE PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) – The first Native American woman to be elected as a state district judge in the United States, who was also widely beloved for her compassion toward people dealing with domestic abuse cases, has died.

Carol Jean Vigil died March 27 in her sleep at her home in Tesuque Pueblo at the age of 61. Her family said she had suffered from a number of health problems, including diabetes, in recent years.

“We made history. It’s a dream come true,” Vigil had said after she was elected to New Mexico’s 1st Judicial District in June 1998.

“She was very extraordinary,” said Vigil’s daughter, 41-year-old Sparo Arika Vigil of Santa Fe. “She was a role model for many people. Really, I guess, a pioneer in some ways, especially for Native Americans looking into becoming attorneys.”

At her swearing in ceremony, Vigil wore a black robe with beaded Pueblo Indian symbols of mountains, lightning, clouds and rain embroidered on the shoulders. She also was affiliated with Isleta Pueblo.

“She was very serious about her work, really concerned about getting it right,” said Santa Fe attorney Bryant Rogers, who served as her treasurer in the 1998 election.

On the bench, he said, she was “very thoughtful and well prepared.”

Vigil’s decision upholding state court jurisdiction over tort claims for personal injury filed by patrons of tribal gaming operations was hotly disputed, and all the pueblos opposed the ruling.

“She did what she thought was right and she was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court,” he said.

Vigil received her bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of New Mexico.

After passing the bar – she was the first Pueblo Indian woman to be admitted – she worked for Indian Pueblo Legal Services Inc.

Her husband of 31 years, Philip Palmer, said she served as assistant state attorney general under Jeff Bingaman, who is now a U.S. senator, and in the mid-1980s went into private practice.

She served as a tribal lawyer for Tesuque Pueblo and wrote the tribal codes for Tesuque and Taos pueblos, Palmer said.

In 1988, Vigil was hired by the 1st Judicial District, which includes Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties, to be a child support hearing officer and six years later she was named special commissioner for domestic violence and mental competency.

“She spent an enormous amount of time protecting children. That was real important to her,” Rogers said.

Sparo Arika Vigil said her mother treated people dealing with domestic violence or child abuse cases compassionately and worked to make a complex legal process more understandable for people in stressful situations.

Her dedication to making parents pay child support drew the attention of the sheriff, who visited her office one day to inform her that she had put more people in the Santa Fe County jail than the district attorney, Rogers said.

Vigil said her mother also was a gifted painter and baked bread with a pueblo-style adobe oven.

Carol Vigil retired from district court in 2005, citing health reasons. She had an episode similar to a heart attack before her retirement.

“She’s taken a lot of first steps that a lot of people hadn’t taken, both from being courageous enough to do it and also having a desire to help the Native community along, like being a role model,” Sparo Vigil said.

Vigil is survived by her husband and daughter; her mother, Evelyn Vigil; and a brother, Martin Vigil.





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