Joe Wood, who was in the first graduating class of The University of New Mexico School of Law, served as one of the original members of the New Mexico Court of Appeals, died Monday at his home in Santa Fe. He was 89.
“The thing I remember most about him, he had a knack of writing concise appellate decisions and they were well researched and he got them out quickly and his opinions were models for other judges — short, succinct and supported by the law, and fair,” said his longtime friend and former judge Tom Donnelly.
Born Jan. 28, 1924, the third of four sons of Bynum and Zula Wood, in Heber Springs, Ark., Joe Werner Wood graduated from Little Rock High School and joined the U.S. Navy in December of 1941 after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Because he was only 17 at the time, he had to get his father’s permission to enlist. Joe’s daughter, Rachel Wood, said Bynum told his son he would sign the form because he figured Joe would find a way to join up.
Wood attended midshipman’s school at Notre Dame University, played on the tennis team and at the war’s end, hitchhiked to Albuquerque to enroll in UNM’s newly created law school. His roommate in law school, Oscar Jordan, said Wood was the valedictorian of the class all three years and worked at the library. During law school, he met his wife, Anita, an Englishwoman who was visiting New Mexico, and introduced Jordan to the woman he would marry.
After graduating in 1950, the Woods moved to Santa Fe to work for the Legislative Counsel Service where he wrote a book about New Mexico’s community property code. Its publication in 1954 resulted in amendments to the code that “made it fairer,” said Donnelly. “The law originally really shortchanged women’s rights under community property and, as a result [of the changes], it liberalized community property law on behalf of women.”
Wood then moved to Farmington to practice law with one of his law school friends. In 1966, he returned to Santa Fe after Gov. Jack Campbell appointed him as one of the first five judges of the state Court of Appeals, which had been created by a state constitutional amendment. Before that, the state’s only appellate court was the Supreme Court and it had developed a backlog of cases.
During those first few years, Court of Appeals judges not only sat in for Supreme Court justices, but also traveled all over the state to serve as substitute trial judges in district courts.
“I can remember, as a young attorney, going down to Truth or Consequences to try a case in front of Judge Wood,” Donnelly said.
In the 1970s, Wood began pushing for tape-recording district-court trials. Until then, it often took a year or more to get a transcript so the case could be appealed. The tape recordings allowed transcripts to be turned out in a week. A pilot project in 1974 led to the adoption of a rule that required all criminal and children’s court cases to be tape recorded — now the standard in most district courts.
But Donnelly said Wood’s interest in speeding up the often slow wheels of justice did not stop with tape recordings.
“He not only would finish the cases that were assigned to him to author, but if one of the other judges was behind in their work, he would go and get that case and write that opinion,” Donnelly said. “He would go to the judge and say, ‘Could I take that case and get it done for you?’ and, invariably, the other judge was happy to have the help.”
After serving on the Court of Appeals for 20 years — half the time as chief judge — Wood retired in 1986. He was “of-counsel” to the Hinkle law firm, then took inactive status in September 2001.
He continued to live in his home on the southeast side of Santa Fe after his wife’s death in 1984. He played tennis regularly, loved to hike and camp, often in the Jemez Mountains, and read widely, his favorite books being history and mysteries.
He is survived by his daughters, Lorraine Wood Nicholls and husband Simon Nicholls of London, England; Rachel Wood and husband Kevin Haughton and their two children, Megan and Alex Haughton, of Olympia, Wash., and Helen Wood of Berkeley, Calif. Rivera Family Funeral Home is handling the services which have not yet been finalized.
Rachel said when she worked with her father on writing his obituary a year ago, he told her that the proudest moment of his career was when two young lawyers who had represented opposing clients in his court told him later he had been fair.
“He was very generous and honest as the day is long,” said Jordan. “He was never corruptible. I never worried about him as a judge there. He called them like he saw them and he didn’t care what happened.”
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.