Hard Copy

With COVID restrictions easing, folks are once again signing New Mexico’s ‘Roll of Attorneys at Law,’ which dates to the early 1870s

The careful, chronological procession of ornate, dated signatures cuts off abruptly in March of 1918. Just seven names from that year appear in New Mexico’s Roll of Attorneys at Law, the first volume of which dates to the early 1870s and represents territorial, then state officials’ efforts to document all who entered the legal profession.

With the Spanish Flu pandemic came a prohibition on large gatherings and an end to the ceremonies admitting new attorneys to the practice.

The signing started anew in August of 1919. More than 100 years would pass—and three more volumes of the attractive, hard-bound roll would fill up—before it stopped again. That’s when COVID-19 swept into New Mexico.

Now, staff at the New Mexico Supreme Court, where volumes one through five are kept, work through a backlog of nearly 700 people who passed the state bar exam during this pandemic but couldn’t sign the roll on account of public health orders. (A signature is required, along with taking the oath of attorneys, to practice in New Mexico.)

“That’s history repeating itself,” says Elizabeth A. Garcia, who is two weeks into her job as the court’s chief clerk.

Kathy Bartlett, the chief clerk’s appellate paralegal, tells SFR she’s gathered 179 signatures from new attorneys in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces. The book’s trip down south earlier this month marked its first-ever journey that far from the capital.

Presently, 7,500 people are licensed to practice law in New Mexico, with about 5,500 of them living in the state.

The rolls contain more than 15,500 names, along with dates and home cities. New Mexico appears to be one of just five states that keep analog copies of attorney rolls.

There’s a digital database, too, but for any lover of old things, the action is in the hard copies. Court officials allowed SFR to have a look—but not a touch—on a recent afternoon inside the courthouse. Volume one, in particular, is a stunner, with nearly 40 years worth of names that predate statehood. It ends in 1952 with the signature of Wilson Hurley, the noted fighter pilot, engineer and painter.

There’s Elfego Baca, the famous—or infamous, depending on who’s recounting—Socorro lawman. He signed the roll July 29, 1885. New Mexico’s Dennis Chávez, the second-ever Hispanic person to serve in the US Senate, signed Jan. 1, 1920.

Penmanship still mattered. Grand, sweeping capital “g”s, “q”s that should be hanging in a museum and a handful of “s”s that would make a Baby Boomer’s middle school English teacher blush fill the roll. Many signatures appear in pencil; the strokes and flourishes have hardly faded a shade.

It would be easy enough to see the tradition as an anachronism embedded in a profession that can sometimes take itself too seriously or, worse, has been used to oppress women and minorities. But most who spoke with SFR express pride, albeit guarded in some cases, in being part of the history.

State Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon pops in for SFR’s visit to the courthouse. The next day, she is sworn in as chief justice.

“We are sitting in a building steeped in history. We are sitting in a courthouse that was built as a WPA project,” Bacon says, noting it’s the only WPA structure in the state that still serves its original purpose. “We hang on to some of those historic traditions, and signing the roll of attorneys is one of those.”

Bacon signed in 1997, the year before Garcia. Neither had gandered at their signature since.

“It was an interesting moment,” Bacon says. “I’m going to be the chief justice tomorrow. And so to look at my signature today, it was really cool. It meant something to look at it.”

Garcia says it reminded her of the “milestone” she’d achieved by graduating law school and passing the bar exam.

The Roll of Attorneys at Law has been used for more than nostalgia.

Around 2012, the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association wanted to trace some heritage for a project, says Leon Howard, a member of the association and the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

The association began with a search for New Mexico’s first Black lawyer, Howard says, and that led to the roll.

The signature “jumped out at you,” he says of George W Malone’s impression, dated Aug. 19, 1916. Malone’s home is listed, too: Blackdom, NM, the state’s most important Black freedom colony, which operated successfully in Chaves County for nearly 30 years until the Great Depression.

Malone had come to New Mexico from Alabama and practiced law here for several years before moving on, Howard explains.

“It’s quite profound to think about, and I wish we were more in tune with his journey to be admitted to practice law,” Howard says. “We know all the hurdles to these systems—the legal system, access to housing, land—were hard to achieve by Black people at that time.”

Few if any Black attorneys were admitted between Malone and when the first Black graduates of the University of New Mexico School of Law started signing the roll in the 1960s, he says. That coincides with passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

That gap is notable as well, Howard says, and not in a positive sense. But he credits the association’s use of the Roll of Attorneys at Law with tracking down Malone’s signature. The association has since endowed a scholarship for Black high school kids who have an interest in the law.

Howard signed the roll in 2009 and cites the “tactile nature and old-school look and feel of the book” as helping to connect him to history and tradition.

Court staffers believe they’ve identified New Mexico’s first women attorneys through researching the roll, too, as part of an effort for the state Women’s Bar Association. The year was 1933, and either Kathryn McKinley or Marcia Hertzmark signed first.

“From looking at the book, you can see we’ve become steadily more diverse over time,” says Garcia, the court clerk.

Names are never stricken from the roll, court officials say, even in the event of disbarment or surrender of a law license. So the volumes include the altruistic, the incompetent and the corrupt who dot New Mexico’s legal history.

Bartlett, the paralegal, tells SFR that signatures will likely fill volume five in another five or six years. So, she’s already thinking about the next.

“We need a bookmaker,” she says.

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