Kelly has never been afraid of charting his own course. The son of a prominent judge in Long Island, New York, he graduated from Notre Dame University and then Fordham law school and took a job in the small, remote southeast New Mexican town of Roswell. In 1976, he ran for the New Mexico Legislature and won, even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans in his district 2-1, according to an article about him written by a former clerk.
In the statehouse, Kelly was a strong foe of abortion rights but far from a doctrinaire conservative, Stratton recalled. He remembered that, when the Legislature reinstituted the death penalty, Kelly inserted several provisions to limit its application.
After two terms, Kelly moved to Santa Fe to run his firm’s office there and left elected office. He joined the volunteer fire department in his rural community outside the city and even well into his 60s would dash out of dinners to rescue people from car crashes. In a 2008 interview, Kelly, then 67, told the Santa Fe New Mexican he worked out four times a week. “I work to keep up with the younger guys … We’re swinging axes at metal walls and if you didn’t keep in shape, you’d die.”
President Bush appointed Kelly to the 10th Circuit in 1991. In his interview with his former clerk, Kelly also proudly cited his opinion in a 1998 case where he ruled that police cannot offer plea deals in exchange for courtroom testimony. Federal prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies were outraged and the full 10th Circuit reversed Kelly’s opinion.
Kelly didn’t budge, writing a dissent from the new opinion. “Courts,” he wrote, “must apply unambiguous statutes as they are written.”
Associated Press reporter Barry Massey in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.
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