Municipal court singed by Fran Gallegos controversy.
It's not the fall most people fear, it's the sudden stop at the bottom. Unless you happen to be Frances Gallegos.
The resignation of the former Municipal Court judge in November was a somewhat anticlimactic culmination to months of sordid melodrama but it was the gritty details of her descent that made the fall of Fran Gallegos one for the record books.
The controversy began Aug. 7 after a story in The Santa Fe New Mexican included allegations from a former employee (who had gone to work for Gallegos' ex-husband) that Gallegos had systematically altered court documents to make her sentencing record in DWI cases appear tougher than they actually were [Outtakes, Aug. 10:
The chaos that followed had all the bizarre twists and turns of a made-for-TV courtroom drama.
The governor called for an investigation. Salivating daily newspaper reporters gave the public daily doses of soap opera, stopping just short of adding a "-gate" to the scandal. Eventually, the state's Judicial Standards Commission successfully lobbied for Gallegos' temporary suspension at a packed Supreme Court hearing [Outtakes, Aug. 24:
] before Gallegos resigned on the same day criminal charges were filed against her in Magistrate Court.
Jim Noel, the executive director of the JSC, acknowledges the Gallegos case was uncommon. Typically the JSC files a Notice of Preliminary Investigation if it feels a complaint is worth further investigation. A request for Immediate Temporary Suspension is exceedingly rare and used, Noel says, only when the commission feels an individual judge poses an immediate threat to the integrity of the judiciary.
"A Notice of Preliminary Investigation is not unusual," Noel says. "What is unusual is for the commission to file-in conjunction with an NPI-a petition for Immediate Temporary Suspension. That is not commonly used…It was used in the Gallegos case because of the serious nature of the allegations, which included violations of state law."
Gallegos' resignation did not prevent the JSC from pursuing disciplinary action in her case. On Nov. 30, the commission filed a Petition of Discipline with the state Supreme Court in which the JSC called for Gallegos to reimburse the commission for expenses incurred during its investigation, pay a $5,000 fine, receive a reprimand in the New Mexico Bar Bulletin and be banned from the bench for life. The court rejected the petition, which appears to have marked the end of the matter as far as the JSC is concerned.
"It would not make sense for the commission to expend resources on a matter that the Supreme Court has already made a determination on," Noel says.
But the drama ain't over yet. Gallegos-who continues to deny any wrongdoing-still faces three felony counts of record tampering. On advice from her attorney Jeffrey Jones, Gallegos declined to comment for this story. Her case is still awaiting a grand jury hearing before it goes to trial.
"Right now it's sitting on the DA's desk before it goes to a grand jury," Jones says. "That hasn't happened yet. I don't expect that it will either for at least another couple of weeks."
Meanwhile, the city is facing the daunting task of restoring faith in a Municipal Court tarred by scandal. Local government took a step toward re-establishing the stability-if not the sanctity-of the court on Dec. 7 when the City Council approved Mayor Larry Delgado's recommendation of lawyer and County Probate Judge Ann Yalman to take over the seat vacated by Gallegos and temporarily filled by interim judge Sonya Carrasco-Trujillo.
Yalman will pick up the gavel in January after shuttering her private practice.
"I'm sort of running around like a chicken with my head cut off right now," Yalman laughs. "It's going to be a challenge. I'm nervous, but I'm also very excited."
Yalman's work is cut out for her. The judge-in-waiting is in the process of seeking to improve the court's technology capabilities and to either streamline or replace the court's overburdened case management system. But she is fully aware that her biggest task will be to regain the trust of a wary citizenry.
"We have to restore the public confidence in the Municipal Court," Yalman says. "And building that confidence is going to take time. You have to show a pattern of consistency and fairness over a long period of time. One day or one month isn't going to do it."