John Edwards Conway

John Edwards Conway, a senior federal judge, skilled legislator, lawyer and lobbyist, a jet pilot who went to the U.S. Naval Academy but joined the Air Force so he could fly, died Sunday, June 1, 2014, at his home from an illness. He was 79. Conway could display a gruff demeanor on the bench, but always behind it was a man who liked to tell stories and liked to hear them as well. “The esprit de corps was always what John was about,” said his wife, Ann Maloney Conway. “That's what he got out of his experience. It was always the camaraderie.”


Conway was born in Missouri in 1934 but grew up in Paola, Kansas, where the family had moved to be close to his grandparents. After his military stint, he attended Washburn University School of Law, graduating first in his class and editing the law journal. In the early 1960s, he moved to New Mexico, whose canyons and mesas he knew from flying over the state, practicing law in Santa Fe before moving to Alamogordo and soon becoming city attorney. He was elected to the Legislature as a Republican from a district centered in Otero County and served as Senate minority leader from 1973 to 1980, reaching across the aisle to Democrats. One of his pals was Sen. Ike Smalley, a Democrat from southern New Mexico and the president pro tempore.


Despite his reputation as a conservative, Conway put his stamp on a range of legislation that today would be labeled progressive – right to die legislation, increased funding for Corrections in the wake of the prison riot and a bill package to implement the Equal Rights Amendment to the New Mexico Constitution in 1972. “He was very much a promoter of women in the profession and a supporter of choice,” said Ann Conway. He sponsored a bill – particularly memorable to his three sons – to give Smokey Bear, the burned bear cub who became the U.S. Forest Service mascot, a permanent resting place, now a state park near Capitan.


“He used to tell this great story about (Sen. John) Irick debating him on the floor and calling him “little rooster.” He would say, 'Why do we need so much money for this – can't we just bury him standing up?'” Ann Conway recalled. Conway served on the New Mexico Disciplinary Board and chaired the Governor's Organized Crime Prevention Commission. He was the managing partner of the Albuquerque office of the Montgomery & Andrews law firm when he was nominated by Sen. Pete Domenici and appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a seat on the U.S. District Court bench in 1986. For years afterward, at the conclusion of a jury trial, he would invite jurors to listen to the tape recording of his call from the president.


Conway was involved in getting the new federal courthouse at Fourth and Lomas downtown. And, once there, he installed a patio set and grill on a porch adjacent to his office. Annually, those who'd lost a bet on the Army-Navy game were required to supply steaks for a cookout.


He presided over high-profile trials, including the “sanctuary trial,” in which a newspaper reporter and a minister were prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for alleged violations of immigration law. They were acquitted.


Conway also presided over the three-month Aguirre trial, a case involving substantial quantities of marijuana smuggled across the border near Deming and, at the time, the longest trial in the state's history. True to his nature, after the trial, he invited prosecutors and defense lawyers to his home for a dinner afterward – though most of the counts had to be retried. During his tenure as judge, he became friends with then-FBI director Louis Freeh, who invited him to speak at the first graduating class of an international law enforcement academy the FBI helped establish in Budapest, Hungary.


Conway spent five years on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2003-2008, appointed by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist.  He served six years as chief judge in New Mexico. During that time, Ann Conway said he was inclusive, bringing together bankruptcy and magistrate judges with the “Article III” judges with lifetime tenure. “He really brought the entire courthouse together and was very egalitarian in that sense,” she said.  Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen, his former law clerk and friend, said he was “a complex person … . He was one of a kind.”


Besides his wife, he is survived by three sons, Bill Conway of Norman, Oklahoma, Matthew Conway of Las Cruces and Chris Conway of Albuquerque, his sister Anne Burlingame of Tulsa, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.  A memorial service is planned at the U.S. District Courthouse, but no date has been set. Burial will be at the national cemetery in Santa Fe.