Richard Puglisi had never met a lawyer before deciding his aptitude was more akin to law than medicine, his original field of interest; he didn't even know what lawyers did. But his mother always knew he'd be a lawyer because when she went into labor with him, she was reading The Great Mouthpiece by Gene Fowler.
When he entered the UNM School of Law, he was more interested in a legal education than a career as a lawyer. As he made his way through law school; however, he became more confused, tugged by more interests than he could possibly pursue.
During law school, he signed up for the U.S. Naval Reserve and after graduation in December 1979, he joined the Judge Advocate General Corps, stationed in San Diego and Pearl Harbor.
Puglisi's primary goal in JAG was to see how he liked being in a courtroom. After four years, he was trying murder cases, had gained self-confidence and was ready to begin practice in Honolulu.
During a Thanksgiving visit with family in Albuquerque, an impromptu interview with Montgomery & Andrews, which was expanding its Albuquerque office, resulted in a change in his plan. In May 1984, he joined the firm, beginning a civil practice that led to a career in medical malpractice defense.
"There were great training opportunities at Montgomery & Andrews at that time," says Puglisi. "About 10 of us young lawyers started at the same time and the senior lawyers offered scenario practices and helped us with depositions and voir dire."
By 1991, Puglisi was ready for a new challenge and, along with a few colleagues, formed the new firm, Madison, Harbor, Mroz & Puglisi.
"I was ready to see if we could do this," he says. "The success was wild; we doubled our salaries the first year and it just kept going."
Five years later, he was chosen from more than 100 applicants for a new U.S. magistrate judge position. Under the direction of former Chief U.S. District Judge John Conway, the court had become more and more progressive, and in response to an explosive criminal caseload (New Mexico has the highest caseload per judge in the country.) the magistrate judges' duties were expanded.
Since 1996, in addition to administering guilty pleas and handling pre-trial matters, Puglisi has been presiding over civil cases with the consent of all parties involved.
"This job has been so rewarding in that I have the ability to give people closure and do a lot of good," he says. "There is not a single day that I don't enjoy getting out of my car and coming to work." Or hopping off his bicycle, which he rides three days a week to work.
Confessing to an inability to say no, Puglisi has continued his involvement with the U.S. military. He had quit the Naval Reserve after he returned home to New Mexico, but in 1989, a friend talked him into joining the Army National Guard. He's been a colonel for nine years and for three months in 2007 he took a leave from his magistrate judge job and served as the commanding officer on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of Operation Jump Start.
His mission was to maintain the integrity of the 181-mile border in southern New Mexico. From a base south of Deming, he oversaw 1,200 troops in 43 encampments along the border. With the assistance of radar and sophisticated optics, they managed to stop most of the foot traffic of individual Mexican citizens making their way across. The drug and people smugglers continue to challenge the U.S. Border Patrol.
"It was a huge eye-opening experience for me, especially as it relates to what we do at the courthouse in terms of re-entry and immigration cases," he says. "Now I know where they are coming from and how they got here."
During this time, he shared his experience with his fellow jurists, arranging tours for them, so they too, could get a hands-on glimpse of the border.
These days, Puglisi is commander of the Regional Training Institute, which trains enlisted men and officer candidates. Come June, he will retire, after 30 years of military service.
In addition to cycling, he plays golf, swims, hikes and takes his speedboat to Lake Powell.
Q: What was your favorite class in law school?
Q: Who was your favorite professor?
A: Ted Occhialino. He not only explained things clearly but challenged us and kept us honest.
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief by Geoffrey Perret.
Q: What would be your dream job?
A: A Navy Seal.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a U.S. Magistrate Judge?
A: Mediations. I get really involved in the cases and interact with the parties. It's the closest thing I get to do to practicing law and still be a judge.
Q: What is the strangest thing that has happened in your courtroom?
A: A defendant called me a name. It startled me because it had never happened before and hasn't happened since. I didn't know what to do, so I ignored it.