Over the past three years, the office of US Attorney for New Mexico Kenneth Gonzales has prosecuted thousands of criminal cases in federal district court. Last fiscal year, a whopping 97.7 percent of the cases terminated by Gonzales’ office resulted in a guilty plea or guilty verdict—above the national average of 93.5 percent, according to data from the US Department of Justice.
As the state’s top federal prosecutor, Gonzales has substantial say in which cases to prosecute, and how to prosecute them. As one of 93 US attorneys, he has authority that local prosecutors don’t, such as prosecuting felony crimes committed on tribal lands and dealing with border issues.
“There’s a wide range of jurisdiction in this district,” says Bill Lutz, a Las Cruces lawyer who served as New Mexico’s US attorney from 1982 to 1991. Lutz says his office was one of the country’s busiest because of its tribal and border jurisdiction.
Elizabeth Martinez, the spokeswoman for Gonzales’ office, says that when Gonzales took over, he became the first US attorney to establish a section in the criminal division that “deals with nothing but Indian country.”
Gonzales sent representatives of his office to “go out there and meet with people in the [Native American] community…to develop those relationships,” she says.
Yet the face of New Mexico’s US Attorney’s Office may soon change—and with it prosecutorial tactics that could impact thousands of New Mexicans.
In November, President Barack Obama nominated Gonzales to a prestigious US District Court judgeship.
The US Senate must now confirm Gonzales’ nomination, which recently passed its first hurdle with a favorable vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, writes in an emailed statement that Udall and US Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, “have completed interviews with candidates for the soon-to-be vacant U.S. attorney position.” She adds that the Senate will likely vote on Gonzales’ nomination this summer.
Padilla explains that Udall “has looked for many of the same qualifications that [Gonzales] has—exceptional leadership skills, the respect of his peers, and a distinguished legal career.”
“Many of the candidates meet these criteria,” she writes.
But US attorneys’ substantial autonomy means that Gonzales’ successor—who will bring his or her own set of skills, experience and values to the job—will play a significant role in shaping how federal crimes are prosecuted in New Mexico.
“The US attorneys are by and large very independent in terms of selecting cases and prosecuting cases, both on the criminal side and on the civil side,” says Richard Rossman, a former US attorney for Michigan and the executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Former United States Attorneys.
And while US attorneys are supposed to keep politics out of prosecution, New Mexico’s office has seen political scandal in the past. In 2006, the George W Bush administration fired Republican US Attorney David Iglesias after Republicans complained “about my alleged lack of zealousness in voter fraud issues,” Iglesias told PBS in 2007. Iglesias has maintained that his firing was politically motivated; a 2008 DOJ report agreed, finding that actions to remove Iglesias “were an abdication of senior Department leaders’ responsibilities, independence, and integrity.”
But he says the scandal did have one positive result: restoring US attorneys’ independence.
“Our system of government is predicated on the belief that you have the rule of law, that the law applies equally to everybody, regardless of your station in life,” Iglesias tells SFR. “And anytime there’s a criminal prosecution possible, it’s of critical importance that the public understands that the prosecution is based on what the facts are and what the law is—and nothing else.”
Iglesias says the next US attorney should be someone who is “smart, principled and independent—and experienced.”
“It’ll be somebody that is politically connected,” he says, “somebody who will pass confirmation, and somebody who will do a good job.”