For Norman Hodges, a Silver City native, a career in the law was a natural. His father, Joseph, practiced law for 50 years, including 16 as Silver City district attorney, and his older brother, Joseph Jr., also was a Silver City lawyer.
But, like most young men in the 1940s, he took a detour into World War II. When he was a freshman at the University of New Mexico, Hodges joined the Naval ROTC and in 1945, he was commissioned as an ensign and left school to serve on the USS Olympus in the Philippines. He was aboard the ship in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered, and then spent the following year on occupation duty in Japan and China. After he returned to New Mexico in 1946 to complete his undergraduate education, Hodges joined the U.S. Naval Reserves, where he served as a captain for the next 30 years. He still attends reunions of his shipmates.
Hodges loved New Mexico, especially the forested hills of Silver City, and after he earned his J.D. from the UNM School of Law in 1951, he returned home to join his father and brother in practice for a year before going to work in the Lordsburg law office of Vearle Payne, who later became a U.S. District Judge. Hodges went on to serve his community as district attorney for six years before being appointed to the bench in the Sixth Judicial District in 1963.
Since then, he has never ventured far from a courtroom dais in Grant, Luna or Hidalgo counties. He retired from the bench in 1987, but Hodges has continued to work as a judge tempore ever since. After 44 years of overseeing juries and deciding cases, not much surprises him anymore.
A few highlights:
In 1980, he sent the ex-Grant County sheriff and two of his deputies to prison for operating a burglary ring in Silver City. The sheriff wasn't part of the ring, but he saw his deputies dressed in black, ready to go out on the job and didn't report it.
In the mid-1970s, Hodges held unconstitutional a state law that offered no alternatives to death for first-degree murder convictions. His ruling was overturned by the New Mexico Supreme Court but upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, the Legislature was forced to change the law, requiring mitigating factors be considered in sentencing for first-degree murder.
Open range laws took a hit in Hodges' courtroom when a 12-person jury found against a Lordsburg-area rancher whose cow was killed by a motorist. The state Supreme Court upheld the jury determination. Hodges also played a key role in a number of water rights rulings pertaining to the Mimbres Basin, which eventually made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court as United States v. New Mexico. In 1978, the high court affirmed Hodges' ruling, which was a victory for state-over-federal control of water.
He still enjoys hearing cases. "It helps keep my mind alert and I enjoy the interesting cases."
Q: What was your favorite law school class?
A: I can't remember that far back.
Q: What was your least favorite class?
A: Library research, but I got to be pretty good at it.
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: a Memoir, by Bill Bryson
Q: Who is your favorite U.S. Supreme Court justice?
A: Sandra Day O'Connor
Q: What do you like about being a judge?
A: The authority to decide a case.
Q: What is the strangest thing that ever happened in your courtroom?
A: I sentenced a young man to five years in the state penitentiary; he said, "Thank You," and I said "You're Welcome."
Q: If you weren't a judge, what would be your dream job?
A: A trial lawyer and general practitioner
Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: I swim three times a week, I belong to two bridge clubs and I go out for enchiladas once a week, red chile, medium-hot.