Tribute to Lewis R. Sutin
Lewis R. Sutin
On May 27, 1992, the plain wooden coffin of Lewis R. Sutin was lowered into the ground. Family members and close friends threw in the first shovelfuls of dirt with their own hands, thus saying farewell to the splendid, cantankerous, lovable, humanitarian lawyer, judge, mentor and friend. He would have been 84 years old on June 6, a date, Lew liked to point out, which had been selected for D-Day in World War II because it was his birthday.
To the thousands of his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, it was a day of mourning. Lew would have considered it his final public appearance. The man was irrepressible; adversity was something to be laughed at and overcome. While others played second fiddle, Lew Sutin led the band.
The public facts of his life are well known. He graduated from the University of Illinois Law School in 1931, and started practicing in Terre Haute, Indiana. In 1946, Lew, his wife and young sons moved to Albuquerque where he formed a law partnership with Irwin S. Moise, then a former district Judge and future member and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. Lew was appointed Judge of the Court of Appeals in 1971 by Governor Bruce King, was elected to the court in 1972 and re-elected in 1974. He was turned out of office in 1982 after a sometimes acrimonious campaign that reflected his split with some of the members of the court over dissenting opinions, memorandum opinions and private “letter opinions” to attorneys who appeared before the court. He had the good sense to see that the court should give reasons for its decisions, and that lawyers and litigants deserved something more than “one-liner” decisions; his detractors had the good sense to realize that the business of the court needed to get done, and that the energy of the court should be concentrated on important matters. The Supreme Court weighed in by amending the Code of Judicial Conduct to add the collegial opinions requirement of Rule 21-300(A)(6). Lew Sutin wore it like a badge of honor.
He boasted of being the only member of the appellate judiciary ever to have been held in contempt in both the District Court and the Supreme Court of New Mexico. The latter instance involved a second motion for rehearing on an appeal that he had lost. Lew requested the court to appoint a panel of competent lawyers to decide the matter on the grounds that he thought the court could not understand his argument. The court set his motion for hearing, and as he began his oral argument, the Chief Justice banged his gavel, denied the motion for second rehearing, found Lew in contempt, and fined him. He paid his fine on the spot, in cash, with a smile. Though the proceedings were unpublished, it is said that his argument has since been adopted as the law of New Mexico.
While on the Court of Appeals, he held forth daily at the lawyer’s table at La Fonda. His portrait hangs there in the lobby, beard, cigar, bowler, boutonniere, walking stick and all; a tribute from his companions of “the Round Table” for years of wit and wisdom generously shared.
He was generous of time, spirit and advice. Many a young lawyer, and a few old timers losing their grip, were the beneficiaries. More than 30 years ago, he frequented the law school library, where he always redeemed for cash all student IOUs in the coffee lounge.
In his last years, he came to the office every day, and carried on an extensive correspondence with political and religious leaders, the United States Supreme Court, the New Mexico Lawyer, and anyone else he felt could benefit from his unsolicited advice. His sheer audacity, orneriness, and joie de vivre are memorable. It’s enough to make you believe in the hereafter; surely, God in Her wisdom cannot have failed to provide a place for such as this.