BISBEE — Former Superior Court Judge Matthew W. Borowiec died Monday after a brief illness, days short of his 85th birthday, his family announced.
Borowiec became a lawyer in 1962 and worked in Bisbee until he took the bench at the Cochise County Superior Court in 1979. He retired in 2000 after serving 16 years as the court’s presiding judge, which made him the chief judge of all courts in Cochise County.
After retiring, Borowiec was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement by the Arizona Supreme Court for his lifelong work improving public trust and confidence in Arizona’s court system. He then joined Borowiec & Borowiec PC, a Sierra Vista law firm started in 1997 by his two sons, Joel and William, who were later joined by their sister Anne.
“The Judge,” as Borowiec was still called in public, spent the last several years providing legal research for some of the firm’s cases when he wasn’t enjoying retirement with Snoody, his wife of 34 years. He also donated many years of service to the establishment and expansion of Cochise College, and last fall he was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame.
Borowiec, who would have turned 85 on April 10, is survived by his wife, Charlene “Snoody,” son Joel, daughter Anne, stepchildren Glen and Lisa, grandchildren Sara, Joshua, Jessica and Brian, and first wife Margo.
A public celebration of Borowiec’s life will take place Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Turquoise Valley Golf Course in Naco. A private burial is planned for a later date.
The Canadian-born Borowiec became a naturalized citizen and joined the U.S. Navy. He later studied history and English in college on a basketball scholarship and went on to graduate from the University of Arizona Law School in 1962 even though he hadn’t planned to become a lawyer.
“Interestingly, when I was in high school and even in college, I really didn’t know what lawyers did,” he said in a 2018 interview with the Herald/Review. “My parents used lawyers on occasion, and I remember thinking they always dressed nice and looked pretty good.”
Boroweic’s three children grew up in Bisbee, where he practiced law until taking the bench in 1979. Like their father, the Borowiec kids attended the University of Arizona, a fact the Wildcat supporter relished. However, he never expected each would follow him into the legal profession.
“I’m proud of all three of them for putting in the hard work and getting through law school,” he said last year.
The lifelong Democrat believed strongly in the separation of powers and the importance of the judicial branch. And he wasn’t afraid to remind politicians and policymakers that lawyers were a critical safeguard.
“Can you imagine what this country would be like without lawyers and judges?” he once asked. “The whole system would change and the government would be able to do what it wants.”
But it is Borowiec’s tenure as presiding judge which brought changes to how the local judiciary interacted with those who worked in the system and those who appeared in court. He was instrumental in starting a merit system to protect judicial employees from unfair or politicized employment practices, as well as the development of a family conciliation court to help citizens navigate divorce and child custody cases.
The longtime judge was lauded this week by many in the Cochise County legal profession for his integrity, high expectations, and efforts to modernize the court system. The lasting influence of Borowiec’s time on the bench is still felt, according to several people who spoke with the Herald/Review.
Among those is current Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal, who joined the county’s public defender department in 1989. At the time, Borowiec was presiding judge and “the titular head of the Cochise County Bar Association,” Cardinal recalled Monday.
“He was not only a committed advocate for the court, he was a committed advocate for the legal profession,” she said. “At the beginning of the court’s morning calendar, he would announce to the assembled attorneys when and where a particular bar function was going to happen, and that he ‘would see us there.’ And we did attend, because he wanted to see us there.”
Cardinal said the spirit of professionalism and community espoused by Borowiec in those days had a lasting effect on her.
“It was another time, when lawyers, judges, and court personnel all viewed their work as related to the advancement of justice, for the benefit of the communities we served,” she said. “That we would treat each other with professional courtesy and fellowship, and Matt Borowiec was the enforcer of that greater good.”
Judge James Conlogue, the county’s current presiding judge, recalls his days as a practicing attorney who frequently appeared before Borowiec. He came to appreciate how the judge handled his courtroom.
“He kept to his judicial role and I always felt good about his judicial perspective and knew I’d be given a fair shot,” Conlogue said upon learning of Borowiec’s death. “While our styles are different, I like to think we shared the same belief in the importance of justice in each and every case.”
Wallace Hoggatt also appeared before Borowiec as an attorney before becoming a judge himself. He said Tuesday that Borowiec will be missed.
“Matt was a mentor to me, from the time he administered the oath of office to me on May 2, 1996, until his retirement,” Hoggatt said. “He was kind, good-humored, and very generous with his time.”
Hoggatt, who recently retired from the bench, noted Borowiec’s efforts made the courts operate more efficiently and more effectively.
“As presiding judge, Matt played a huge role in modernizing the operation of the court system in Cochise County,” Hoggatt said. “Just to name two of his innovations: he established the Office of Court Administration, which is essential to the operation of all levels of the judicial system, as well as the Alternative Dispute Resolution program, which remains highly successful in allowing parties to resolve legal issues without going to trial.”
Borowiec presided over about 30 murder trials and estimated he sentenced thousands of defendants during his time on the bench. But despite the inherent strain of his duties, he could find moments of levity.
“I have never been late to court as a judge,” he once told a reporter. “Lawyers are often early or late, but I’m never late — because court doesn’t start until I get there!”