Carol Jean Vigil, the first Native American to be elected a state district court judge in the United States, died in her sleep at Tesuque Pueblo in late March. She had suffered from a number of health problems, including diabetes, said her husband of 31 years, Philip Palmer. She was 61.
Vigil earned both her bachelor's degree and J.D. at the University of New Mexico, graduating in 1978 from law school. Initially, law school proved overwhelming for the young mother and she dropped out. But she re-enrolled soon after, encouraged by her law professors, she said during her 1998 swearing-in ceremony as a judge in the First Judicial District. Vigil's daughter, Sparo Arica Vigil, remembers attending classes occasionally as a 7-year-old.
Following graduation, Vigil became the first Pueblo woman to be admitted to the New Mexico State Bar, and joined Indian Pueblo Legal Services. She was an assistant attorney general under Jeff Bingaman, now New Mexico's senior U.S. senator. In the mid-1980s, she went into private practice and served as tribal lawyer for Tesuque Pueblo; she wrote the tribal codes for both Tesuque and Taos pueblos.
In 1988, Vigil became a child support hearing officer in the First Judicial District and was named special commissioner for domestic violence and mental competency in 1994.
"She spent an enormous amount of time protection children," said Bryant Rogers, who served as treasurer in her election effort. That dedication drew the attention of the sheriff, who, according to Rogers, visited her office one day to inform her that she had put more people in the Santa Fe County Jail than the district attorney.
After trying unsuccessfully four times to gain appointment to the First Judicial District Court bench, she succeeded in being elected in 1998. At her swearing-in, she wore a black robe with beaded Pueblo Indian symbols of mountains, lightning, clouds and rain embroidered on the shoulders.
"She was very serious about her work, really concerned about getting it right," said Rogers. On the bench, she was "very thoughtful and well prepared."
One decision in which she upheld state court jurisdiction over tort claims for personal injury filed by patrons of tribal gaming operations was hotly contested by the pueblos. "She did what she thought was right and she was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court," said Rogers. She retired from the bench in 2005.
Before having trouble with her knees, she enjoyed an annual elk hunt along with camping and fishing trips. Recently, she had returned to her love of making pencil drawings and paintings.