Victims' advocates are concerned about the selection process that led to the appointment this week of a new 1st Judicial District judge, whose responsibilities include oversight of domestic violence cases.
Coupled with ongoing budgetary problems, future redress of domestic violence in Santa Fe is a mixed bag.
SFR has reported how the recession has come with an increase in domestic violence cases, many unusually brutal. Now, the down economy threatens to wipe out any progress that's been made in reforming police and court procedures.
The state Legislature cut district court budgets by 2 percent at its October special session. Lawmakers will tackle even bigger deficits come January, which means the courts could face another round of cuts. First Judicial District Family Court Judge Raymond Ortiz spoke to this possibility at a town hall meeting in October, noting: "Any further cuts in the judiciary are going to impact the court's ability to deal quickly and effectively with domestic violence."
In his first three years on the job, Ortiz assessed 1,400 domestic violence cases a year on the district's turf in Rio Arriba, Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties. This year, that caseload has increased by approximately 15 percent—in a judicial district that Ortiz says is already three judges short.
What Ortiz didn't say is, cuts or no cuts, domestic violence has not been a priority in the New Mexico judicial system.
Without dedicated funding, officials often steer money from domestic violence to other programs when crunch time comes.
"That's the frustrating part of it. It comes down to these offices seeing [domestic violence] cases as a priority," New Mexico's domestic violence czar, Sharon Pino, says.
The only mention of domestic cases in the New Mexico judiciary's six-year strategic plan, revised in October, comes in the context of budget savings, not public safety. The plan calls for the judiciary to evaluate domestic relations and children's courts in order to "determine whether a more efficient, less costly system is available."
Since the firing of Domestic Relations Hearing Officer Margaret Kegel earlier this year, victims' advocates, in particular, have questioned the commitment of the 1st District Court, which hears the most serious felony-level cases.
That line of criticism has continued with the selection of a replacement for retiring District Judge James Hall. The new judge, Sarah Singleton, will oversee family court and domestic violence cases. Several local lawyers tell SFR they are surprised Pino did not make the judicial nominating commission's final cut.
David River, co-facilitator of the Santa Fe Coordinated Community Response Council, sat through much of the daylong interview process.
"The only question about domestic violence…was asked of Sharon Pino, and it was critical of the work she'd done. I was just amazed," River tells SFR. "Singleton [said], 'I'm not interested in family court, and I'm hoping this'll lead somewhere else'—and they passed her through."
Singleton tells SFR she "cares very much" about two aspects of family court—domestic violence and pro se litigants. "What I said to the commission was that I believe I would best serve the district in having a civil docket, but that almost every judge that's been in the district has spent some time in family court, and I'm certainly willing to do my fair share of family court," Singleton says.
River says it's important that judges handling domestic violence cases have training because such cases, unlike most civil filings, have life-or-death consequences.
"So much of what this judge is going to do is responding to those allegations, and protection orders, and nobody is interested in whether this person has any experience?" River says.
Santa Fe Domestic and Sexual Violence Liaison Carol Horwitz has previously criticized some district judges' attitudes toward training. More recently, Horwitz, a city employee housed at the police bureau, won a one-year, $200,000 federal grant to hire "compliance officers" to monitor accused domestic abusers.
As part of the grant application, Horwitz sought endorsements from local court officers. The judges at Santa Fe County Magistrate Court were "full steam ahead," Horwitz says. However, according to Horwitz, 1st District Chief Judge Stephen Pfeffer refused to sign off on the grant proposal. "Quite a few judges at District Court were in favor of it. It was just the chief judge that had a problem," Horwitz says. "I don't know why."
SFR traded phone messages with Pfeffer but was unable to interview him by press time.
The compliance officers hired under Horwitz' grant will be city employees charged with doing a job police, prosecutors and court staff cannot: ensuring that accused abusers adhere to the conditions
of no-contact orders.
Pino, the domestic violence czar, says lax enforcement of protection orders is "the biggest problem" the state faces in prosecuting offenders and protecting victims. Enforcing those orders requires personal contact with victims—a time-consuming task.
"The only time you'll see the victim is when we have a trial, or when the victim comes to the court and says, 'Your honor, I'd like your permission to lift the no-contact order, because he's the only support for our family,'" Magistrate Richard Padilla says.
The result? Crimes go unpunished and victims remain in danger. "By the time the victim comes to court, the victim and offender have been reunited," Padilla says, and the victim comes to court with excuses like, 'Oh, well, I can't really remember what he did,'" Padilla says. "Oh, come on."
Last week, at a Coordinated Community Response Council meeting at Magistrate Court, Padilla, Pino, Horwitz and others in the field discussed how the new positions might best be put to use.
Connie Warren, who previously worked with the 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces, will supervise the two grant-funded compliance officers. One has already been hired: Lorenzo Sandoval, who recently left his job as a victims' advocate in the District Attorney's Office in Santa Fe.
The compliance officers should be taking cases by next summer. Now, Horwitz is sorting out which "broom closets" the officers will occupy and scrounging around for a filing cabinet they can use.
Each compliance officer will carry approximately 50 clients—a big caseload, but an improvement from the current system, which leaves enforcement up to the police and a small team of victims' advocates in the District Attorney's Office.
"Those victim advocates are running around crazy," Maria Jose Rodriguez Cadiz, counselor at the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center, says. "They don't get involved sometimes from the very beginning. You ask the victims, 'Do you have an advocate?' and they don't know what you're talking about."
The 1st District Attorney's Office currently employs seven victims' advocates—down a couple of bodies from previous years due to budget cuts.
The compliance officer grant is "a good program. It's needed. And we will do whatever is needed to make it a success," Victims' Advocate Deborah Kesler says.
Other changes are in the works. Kesler says DA Angela "Spence" Pacheco will introduce a new "diversion program" for low-risk domestic violence offenders in 2010.
"Instead of putting [offenders] through the system, they can file an application saying they committed these crimes, and go through all the counseling and everything, and it'll never be pursued—which is really good for some people," Kesler says.
Kesler says Pacheco will personally decide which cases qualify for diversions. Diversions should save money on prosecutions for the District Attorney's Office, which also faces cuts.
"If there's strict parameters as to who can get into these programs, there can be a benefit. However, there's also a benefit to having accountability at the outset," Pino says. "I would like to see more DAs utilize what's already available in the law to account for first offenders, rather than using diversion."
Read SFR’s past domestic violence coverage