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Pop Quiz

First Judicial District Judges—Retention

October 1, 2008, 12:00 am

On Nov. 4, Santa Fe voters will be asked whether or not to retain judges in the First Judicial District. Judges must receive 57 percent affirmative votes for retention. This week, we submitted three of the judges to our Pop Quiz. The rules for Pop Quiz are as follows: No research allowed and if they call back later with the right answer, too bad. To see who answered correctly (or came closest), check out our answer key.

1. What does the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” mean to you?

2. Do you think indigent people should have the right to counsel in important cases such as landlord/tenant disputes, divorce, loss of public benefits such as Medicaid/food stamps etc.?

3. Do you think there should be independent oversight of the New Mexico Public Defender Department?

4. Who was the first First Judicial District Court judge?

5. When were judicial districts first established in New Mexico?

6. Do you agree or disagree with the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission’s recent
rating of your performance

Chief Judge James A Hall, 51, Division II (Civil)
1. If people have to wait to get resolution of their case for an extended period of time, they’re not able to get on with their lives and deal with the issues that everyday people have to deal with. That’s a problem particularly in the area where I am in, because I’m assigned to the civil division. And the biggest problems I see in the civil division have to do with cases that take too long and are too expensive and are too complex to get through, and so that’s something I’m trying to work on while we move forward.

2. I can’t say there should be a right to counsel in every one of those cases for every individual. I do think, the way it’s presently set up, funding for indigent parties that need attorneys is through Northern New Mexico Legal Services here, which is funded by the federal government, and it’s my belief that the legal services operation, which is the civil side where people can get lawyers, is woefully underfunded nationwide. I’m not ready to say, ‘Yes, everyone who is in that circumstance should have an automatic right to counsel the way you would in a criminal felony proceeding.’ But I do think the resources for those things should be expanded so we get more involvement by attorneys in those cases.

3. I am, as a judge, in favor of an independent commission that provides oversight for the Public Defender Department. I think it’s important that independence exists in the same way that district attorney’s offices have a certain level of independence aside from the executive. And I think it’d make it better for the public defender’s office in terms of seeking funding and thinking all their lawyers are well trained to have an independent commission.

4. I don’t know. You’re telling me I’ve got to do this off the top of my head?

5. Um, I’d think it would be at the time of statehood. There were districts then. But I have no idea the exact date of statehood for New Mexico, so I don’t know the answer to that question.

6. [Laughs.] I’m pleased that they gave me a positive review. I always think there are areas I can try to improve, day-to-day doing my job. I think there are areas where I think I can improve and get cases done more quickly and more cheaply.

Judge Raymond Z Ortiz, 54, Division III (Family Court)
1. It basically means that litigants should not have to wait for their day in court. There are many complicating factors in people’s lives when they’re involved in litigation. The sooner they get a day in court, the sooner they can get their issues resolved and get on with their lives. It’s closely tied in with funding for the judiciary because our district is one of the neediest in the state. We’re in the top three [districts in need of another judge]. We’re at least two judges down. When you’re short judges, it takes longer to schedule up hearings and trials and issue decisions. Litigants are unfairly asked to delay resolution of their cases because of a shortage of judges. More specifically, I’ve been a judge just over 2½ years and, in that period of time, I’ve been assigned in excess of 11,000 cases in my division. The number of cases I have to resolve on a daily basis, just to keep from falling behind, is 13 or 14 cases.

2. The answer is twofold: First of all, on the federal level, the US Supreme Court has ruled a case, I believe it’s called Lassiter, [which says] there’s no federal right to counsel in civil cases. But legislatures are free to enact provisions on the state level. In my view, the biggest challenge confronting state courts in America is the crisis of self-represented litigants. It’s not just the poor who are part of this crisis. It’s small-business owners, people with college educations. I’m aware of the problem because there’s been a self-represented litigant in at least half of the 11,000 cases assigned to my division since I took the bench 2½ years ago. That is a staggering number of individuals who are self represented. Again, this is not the poor; these are middle-class business owners. It’s just a matter of time before our Legislature addresses the issue.

3. I’m more concerned, frankly, with seeing that both the public defender and district attorney’s offices are funded at the same level. They should be funded at par with one another. That way, cases will be more quickly resolved, more efficiently resolved and more quickly moved through the system. Whether or not it’s a different mechanism than what’s in place now is less important than ensuring both the public defender’s office and district attorney’s office are funded at the same level.

4. I don’t know.

5. [Pauses. Sighs.] Hmm…I’m not sure so I’m not going to give an answer. I have a guess but I’m not sure I want to give guesses. I would’ve guessed in the ’40s.

6. I think it’s a fair process. All of us have room for improvement, myself included. So I took the comments to heart and am working on a daily basis to improve my performance in court. That’s what Governor Richardson put me on the bench to do and that’s what I intend to do.

Judge Daniel Sanchez, 59, Division VII (Civil)
1. That means that, with the number of cases we have, the number of hours we have in the day, the staffing that we have…there are only so many cases we can hear. Our inability to attend to all these cases is overwhelming. Many of the judges are here way past 5 pm, taking our work home just so we can move these along. Let me give you a specific example: In 2007, I had 1,984 new cases assigned to me.

2. Well, that’s a mixed question. First of all, let me preface that I’m sworn to uphold the law as it stands. Such a right is not existent at this time. I wish they did. I wish they had that right, but that’s up to the Legislature.

3. The public defender’s office suffers from the same problem, a lack of resources. They’re
tremendously overwhelmed. I’m a firm believer of open government and full discovery and everyone who comes before me knows we don’t litigate by ambush. There are some things that clearly have to remain confidential. But that’s my position. You can’t have oversight to the point where it inhibits what they need to do.

4. I admit that I can look it up real quick. Who was it?

5. I don’t know, but I know where to go to find it.

6. Um…[long pause]…generally, yes. You know, I think about the article in the New Mexican last week, and it says I was rated slightly lower in some areas. You know, the way they go about getting those ratings is not fair. The only attorneys, generally, who respond to that questionnaire are those who have an axe to grind; they don’t agree.

Answer Key
2. “Gideon’s Law,” named after the historic Gideon vs. Wainwright case of 1963, guarantees legal representation for defendants in criminal cases. However, there is no law currently that guarantees counsel for defendants in civil cases in New Mexico.

4. On Sept. 22, 1846, Joab Houghton was first appointed to the New Mexico Superior Court (which later became the First Judicial District Court) by General Stephen Watts Kearny during the Mexican-American War.

5. The First, Second and Third Judicial Districts were formally established in 1851, but their predecessor, the Superior Court system, was a wartime court system established in 1846 by General Stephen Watts Kearny. Despite the difference in names, court documents from 1851 refer to the previous court system as “district courts.”

6. The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recently released its evaluations of the 74 district and two appellate judges up for retention in the Nov. 4 election. Those evaluations can be reviewed at jpec.org

SFR was unable to include First District Judge Barbara Vigil (Division 1) for Pop Quiz this week because she was out of the country and unavailable.

 

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