Judge Elizabeth Whitefield: A Life of Good Work and End-of-Life Advocacy

In May 2018, a core group of Coalition members started developing our bill for the 2019 session. This led to the pre-filing of the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act (HB 90 and SB 153) in mid-December, named after the later Hon. Elizabeth Whitefield.

The following has been adopted from an obituary posted at Legacy.com.

Elizabeth WhitefieldHonorable Elizabeth E. Whitefield died peacefully in her home on August 11, 2018 after a courageous 11-year battle with cancer. She died as she lived, graciously and generously. Her loving husband, and devoted caretaker, Paul Thorne; and her dear friends, Mary Torres and John Chavez were at her side.

Elizabeth Whitefield had in recent years made headlines as an advocate for aid-in-dying legislation. She performed one of her greatest acts of service when she testified in support of the End of Life Options Act during the 2017 legislative session, which would have allowed her to legally seek a doctor’s help to end her own life. The Act would have allowed terminally ill patients to choose to end their life and suffering with medical assistance.

In support of the Act she told the legislators “cancer has stolen everything from me; my ability to work, my ability to eat, my ability to drink. Don’t let me die without dignity. I implore you to give me the choice that is right for me.” It did not pass.

In May 2018, Retired District Court Judge Elizabeth Whitefield spoke bravely and eloquently with a trach tube attached to her about how she supports the resolution discussed by the Albuquerque City Council because she may be one of the people that will use it.

Whitefield said she has terminal cancer. “I am the face of one of the users of this bill. I know my death is going to be painful. This will allow me to have the dignity that cancer has taken away from the rest of my life. It allows competent people a dignified way to die.”

The resolution to support for doctors to help terminally ill patients die with dignity was unanimously passed by the Council.

Elizabeth was born at a Marine Base in Cherry Point, NC on May 9, 1947 to a family of Irish/Swiss immigrants. She came to New Mexico with her first husband, Jan Whitefield. She received her Bachelor of Arts, Magna cum Laude, from the University of New Mexico in 1974, becoming the first member of her family to graduate college. Elizabeth attended UNM Law School, graduating with her Juris Doctorate in 1977. Elizabeth, by then Judge Whitefield, was awarded the UNM School of Law Distinguished Achievement Award in 2015.

Judge Whitefield with her husband Paul Thorne

Elizabeth practiced law for almost 30 years, first with the late Willard F. (“Bill”) Kitts and then with the law firm of Keleher & McLeod, where she became the first female shareholder and first female member of the Executive Committee.

As a young lawyer, Elizabeth immediately became involved in the local legal community and began giving back. She was a member of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association where she served as Assistant Editor of the Trial Lawyers Journal. She was a State Bar of New Mexico Bar Commissioner for 12 years.

Together with her good friend and fellow Commissioner Mary Torres, Elizabeth supported and implemented a policy of inclusion in the State Bar, actively promoting diversity through action. For her efforts and service, Elizabeth was awarded the State Bar Past President’s Award in 2012.

One of Elizabeth’s greatest contributions to the New Mexico legal community was her founding of the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association, together with Carol Conner and her lifelong friend Margaret Moses Branch, in 1991. The NMWBA was created to address the deficit of women judges, women seminar speakers, women in major law firm positions, and women as lead counsel.

The work of Elizabeth and her cofounders is evidenced today by the number of women in the New Mexico Judiciary, the New Mexico Bar, and in significant leadership positions throughout the State.

Elizabeth is a recipient of the coveted Henrietta Pettijohn Award, named for the first woman attorney in New Mexico and the NMWBA Founder’s Award.

Judge Whitefield was appointed to the Second Judicial District Court in 2007 by Gov. Bill Richardson. She served as the presiding Family Court Judge from 2007 through her retirement in 2016. As presiding judge, she was instrumental in establishing the Peter H. Johnstone Day, where attorneys and mental health professionals provide free assistance to low income families to resolve divorce, child custody and other family law issues.

She was always looking for a way to help people through the system in a more dignified and compassionate manner. She was a highly respected judge, revered for her work ethic, her fairness and insight, her extensive legal knowledge and experience until her retirement in 2016.

After she retired, she continued to volunteer her time to the Court as a pro tem judge. In 2016, the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce awarded Judge Whitefield with the Spirit of New Mexico Award for her extraordinary service to the community. She received the 2017 Justice Pamela B. Minzner Professionalism Award from the State Bar of New Mexico, and the Albuquerque Bar Association Outstanding Judge of the Year Award for 2016. Like her numerous other awards, these awards honored Judge Whitefield’s years of mentoring, leadership and service.

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