Life’s lessons and legacy

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When retired District Court Judge John Pope was forced to step down in March, he wasn’t ready to end his nearly 20-year career on the bench.

But his disease — alcoholism — became too much.

News-Bulletin file photo: Retired District Court Judge John Pope was known to preside over his courtroom without wearing shoes. Pope is recovering at home after suffering nerve damage caused by his alcoholism.

“It’s been difficult,” said Pope last week, two days after leaving a rehabilitation center. “Alcoholism is a chronic disease and it’s hard to break — it’s hard to overcome.”

Pope’s recent stay in rehab wasn’t necessarily to help him overcome his disease, but because his drinking had caused other serious health problems. After being forced to leave his position, Pope admits he began drinking more.

In late March, he noticed he was having trouble walking. The condition became worse and worse, and Pope was admitted to Presbyterian Hospital.

His condition — alcoholic neuropathy — affected his nerves, leaving him virtually immobile.

“It was pretty scary,” Pope said. “The doctors said the alcoholism affected my cerebellum, which interfered with my nerves.”

Today, Pope says he’s better. After five weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation center, he can now walk — although much slower than before — but still sometimes has to use a walker.

According to www.freemd.com, a person with alcoholic neuropathy suffers damage to the nerves, due to the direct toxic effects of alcohol on the nervous system. The damage causes the nerves to malfunction, leading to symptoms.

And if he keeps drinking, Pope said, the condition could return.

In February, when he took a urinalysis mandated by a probation placed on him by the N.M. Supreme Court, Pope said while he knew he was probably going to fail the test, he hoped for the best.

“I had had a couple of drinks, and it showed up in my urine test,” he said. “I was pretty sure it was going to be positive.”

Pope said he wasn’t ready to retire, he said. He thought he had a couple more “good years on the bench.”

“I knew I was going to retire at some point, but I didn’t think this was how it would end,” Pope said. “It was more unexpected than I thought.”

Pope, now 65, was placed on probation in 2006 after he failed to appear to work during the final stages of a criminal jury trial because of alcohol abuse. His absence resulted in a mistrial.

Pope was ordered to complete an Alcoholics Anonymous program as part of the probation, and was placed on paid medical leave for 30 days while he completed an in-patient treatment program for alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

The judge was also required to check in with a probation supervisor monthly as part of the order.

In March, the Supreme Court granted a motion to accept Pope’s resignation from judicial office. The court ordered that upon resignation, (Pope) “shall never again hold, become a candidate for, run for, or stand for any election to any New Mexico judicial office in the future.”

Even though Pope said he had been drinking, a clear violation of his probation, he said he was very careful that his disease didn’t affect his performance as a judge.

“I was very careful not to let it affect me on the bench,” he said.

But personally, it’s a different story, he said.

“It’s difficult to say,” he said. “Being a judge, you tend to be isolated anyway, so you tend to get more isolated I guess. But naturally, I wasn’t a public drinker.”

Through it all, Pope said he’s learned several things, including that he has a lot of people in his corner.

“I have lots and lots and lots of friends — people who care about me,” he said. “They threw me a party, which more than 100 people attended.

“Everybody I’ve met has been very supportive. The people at the courthouse have also been very supportive.

“And, I’ve learned that I have to be more careful about my health,” he said.

Pope says he misses being a judge, he misses going to work every day.

“That’s what I did,” he said. “That’s who I am, basically.”

Pope knew he wanted to be an attorney since the early age of 12. He remembers having to write a paper in the sixth grade about an occupation.

He had no idea what to write about, so he grabbed the dictionary of occupations put out by the Department of Labor.

“As I was reading through it, and I came across ‘lawyer,’ and it sounded like a fit,” he said. “So I decided I was going to be a lawyer. From then on, there was nothing else (I wanted to be.)”

Pope’s father was in the military and retired in Albuquerque. After he graduated from Sandia High School, Pope attended the University of New Mexico, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. From there, he went to law school, graduating in 1973.

After passing the bar, he clerked for the New Mexico Court of Appeals and then moved to Valencia County, where he began practicing both civil and criminal law with the late Tibo Chavez and Dennis Cowper.

“I was just out of law school, and it was an interesting time,” Pope remembers. “That’s when I became active in politics in Valencia County.”

Chavez was running for lieutenant governor at the time, and Cowper needed help in the office. Cowper, Pope said, was a big influence on him and taught the young attorney the ropes.

“He was a brilliant man,” Pope remembered. “He had a great grasp of the law and spoke seven languages. He taught me how to act in the courtroom and how to research. He unfortunately died about six months into our partnership.”

Pope then opened his own practice and brought in Anthony Apodaca in 1980. About two to three years later, Pope left the practice and became the director of litigation for the city of Albuquerque, a job he had for three years.

“That was strictly civil, supervisory and trial practice,” Pope said. “I would defend the city in civil cases and police misconduct cases.

“The hardest part was it was 75 percent administration and another 75 percent litigation, which is 150 percent,” he remembered. “The administration part was the most difficult.”

After leaving the politics of city hall, he was appointed by Gov. Garrey Carruthers to be the workers compensation administrative judge for the state, a position, he says, that had him traveling all over the state.

Five years later, Pope returned to Valencia County to work, this time as a district court judge.

In December 1992, he was recommended and then appointed by Gov. Bruce King to replace District Court Judge Mayo Boucher, who had died.

Even though Pope had stopped practicing in Valencia County to take other positions across the state, he continued to live here. He says he fell in love with the county for several reasons.

“I love Valencia County,” he said. “It’s got that rural atmosphere, a great history and it’s just different than any other place that I’ve ever seen. The people have always been very kind and diverse.

“Valencia County’s history has always fascinated me,” he said. “I’ve always said Valencia County is the southern-most northern county in New Mexico. It has a rich history …”

Becoming a judge was something Pope said he wanted to be early on in his law career. He said he learned about what it took to be a good judge from the late Judge Filo Sedillo, for whom he clerked for while he was in law school.

“I saw what he did and I thought it would be a perfect fit,” Pope said. “Being a judge, first of all, gave me the ability to do the law in an impartial way and to make decisions. But it also gave me the ability to reach out.

“I always said that a judge can’t make you do anything — outside of being a judge — but he can pretty much persuade you and invite you to come to the table,” he said. “What I mean by that is to encourage people to resolve issues.”

Pope is very proud of what he’s been able to accomplish on and off the bench. He’s been active in community service, especially with youth causes. For several years, he acted as Santa Claus every Christmas for foster children through the state’s Children, Youth and Families Division.

“I’m kind of proud of the fact that I’m the only person who has ever been named Citizen of the Year in both Belen and Los Lunas,” he said. “And I actually live in Rio Communities.”

Not only has Pope served on several committees in the New Mexico State Bar Association, he’s also been an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus where he’s taught sociology and political science. He was named Adjunct Professor of the Year — twice.

Pope said serving the community is the reason why he became a lawyer in the first place. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to help.

In the 19 1/2 years he served as district court judge, Pope has presided over some very interesting — and sometimes sad — cases. He’s heard at least two death penalty cases, as well as murder cases, child neglect and abuse cases and every other type of case that came before him.

When asked if it was hard to preside over some of the more heart-wrenching cases. Pope said he thought he was always able to be fair and impartial in his decisions and rulings.

“They all affect you — there’s no way around it,” he said. “But you kind of have to stuff those things aside and decide the case on the facts that you have in front of you.”

As a judge, Pope is also proud of the fact that he’s been able to bring families together. He’s married more than 1,000 couples and has approved many adoptions.

But one of his proudest accomplishments, he says, is implementing the juvenile drug court, an intensive program for youthful offenders.

Less than two months after his retirement, Pope says he misses the people most. He misses the interaction between the lawyers in the courtroom, he misses the courthouse staff and he even misses the litigants themselves.

Today, Pope isn’t sure what he’ll do next, but he does know he doesn’t want to go back to practicing law.

“I don’t have too,” he said. “I’m looking at some community-service types of things. I’m not sure, but I might do some kind of legal clinic, work in a soup kitchen — something.”

But he does know he first has to work on himself, his health and his sobriety.

“I plan to continue attending my AA meetings and working with my psychologist,” he said. “It’s been tough. But I’m doing much better, let’s say than from a month ago. I think my mind is still sharp, but I have to get my body back in order and build up more strength.”

And part of that strength, he says, has come from the support of his family, his staff, his friends and his community.

“I just want to thank the people, in general, for their support, for their thoughts and for their prayers,” he said.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.