Retired state District Judge Sarah Michael Singleton, a witty and well-liked jurist who made landmark decisions regarding same-sex marriage and education in New Mexico, died Thursday evening at her home in Santa Fe of metastatic endometrial cancer.
She was 70.
Her death was confirmed by her longtime partner, retired state Court of Appeals Judge Lynn Pickard.
Friends and colleagues remembered Singleton Friday as a woman with a sharp legal mind who loved the outdoors, was generous with her time and advocated for legal access for all.
First Judicial District Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said she and others who worked with Singleton were saddened by the news of her passing.
“She had a great sense of humor and was certainly one of the most gifted judges in New Mexico if not elsewhere,” Sommer said.
“I know no other person who held the law in such regard,” said Paula Maynes a Santa Fe lawyer who considered Singleton a mentor. “She really considered the practice of law and the act of being a judge one of the highest and best things anyone could do.”
Singleton’s passing also was noted by a variety of state politicians, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. In a statement, she said the judge “leaves a legacy that will be remembered for many years to come.”
Born April 2, 1949, in Ann Arbor, Mich., while her father was in law school, Singleton grew up in Hammond, Ind., Pickard said Friday. Singleton attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York for her undergraduate degree and obtained her law degree at Indiana University before moving to New Mexico in 1974.
She began her legal career in the appellate division of the Public Defender’s Office that year, and in 1976 went into private practice with Pickard, with whom she shared a 42-year personal relationship.
In 1985, Pickard said, Singleton joined the Montgomery & Andrews Law Firm, where she handled complex litigation for more than 20 years.
Then-Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Singleton to replace retired District Judge Jim Hall in the First Judicial District Court in 2009, and she won election to keep the seat the next year. She won retention in 2014 with 80 percent of the vote. She presided primarily over civil cases until her retirement in 2017.
As a civil judge in the state’s capital city, Singleton decided cases that had implications throughout New Mexico.
In 2011, Singleton ruled the deal between Santa Fe County and developers of Santa Fe Studios did not violate laws governing public investment in private enterprise. In 2013, she ordered then-Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In 2015, she struck down a Santa Fe city ordinance that would have banned sales of miniature bottles of alcohol, saying it conflicted with the state Liquor Control Act.
On the bench, she earned a reputation as someone who was demanding but fair and unpretentious.
“You understood what she was saying when she questioned someone at the podium,” said Maynes, “and anyone listening could understand. She was a brilliant lawyer and a brilliant jurist, but she made it simple and understandable. She got to the heart of the issue and could communicate it to anyone in the room.”
Maynes said the judge never hesitated to tell a joke or tease people she knew could take it.
After her retirement, Singleton continued hearing select cases, including one filed by two New Mexico mothers alleging the state hadn’t provided sufficient funding for public education. In a landmark decision handed down last summer, she ruled the state needed to allocate more money for its K-12 education system.
Singleton served as president of the State Bar of New Mexico in 1995-96, pushing its members to perform pro bono work for people who couldn’t afford legal advice. In 2008, she was recognized by the American Bar Association, which credited her with helping persuade the New Mexico Legislature to allocate $2.5 million annually to fund legal services for low-income litigants.
During a rare interview upon her retirement, Singleton said she planned to continue that work.
“My retirement will not dampen my interest in or enthusiasm for assuring that people are not denied justice due to an inability to afford it,” she said.
Though she didn’t have children and never married, Singleton took a personal interest in the challenges associated with being a working mother, Maynes said.
“She was particularly supportive of the young women, myself included, who where starting their families at that time,” said Maynes, who worked with Singleton at Montgomery & Andrews. “She took an interest in our children and all of the things required to keep working at a law firm with young children.”
Singleton also volunteered to coach T-ball for Santa Fe youngsters in the early 1990s, and she and Pickard coached a mushball team for adults at Montgomery & Andrews, Maynes said.
Maynes said Singleton, who lived in Tesuque, was an avid outdoorswoman who hiked the area year-round.
Pickard said this love of the outdoors came from Singleton’s childhood when she attended a youth summer camp held on the shores of Corey Lake in Three Rivers, Mich. Singleton went there every year between the ages of 7 and 22 and worked her way up from camper to director of the camp’s waterfront program.
Pickard said Singleton is survived by her brother, Palmer Singleton, also a lawyer, and her nephew, Sam Singleton-Freeman, who is planning to attend law school.
Pickard said Singleton and her family members were drawn to the law because “they were all interested in public service, civic responsibility and helping people.”
A memorial service for Singleton is scheduled at 2 p.m. July 14 at Temple Beth Shalom, 2015 E. Barcelona Road in Santa Fe.