Judge Ann Yalman decided to call it quits after a decade running Santa Fe’s municipal court “because if you look at the prior judges, they all get into trouble beyond 10 years,” she says with a bit of a laugh. “I had no desire to run into trouble.”
With just weeks left on the bench, Yalman says, the plan is to keep her head down and go quietly into retirement, before any occasion might arise that would see her exit under the cloud of criminal or ethical investigation that hung over her predecessors.
Two candidates, Ignacio Gallegos and Virginia Vigil, vie for her seat judging what they characterize as the people's court, the place where most people who wrangle with the judicial system find themselves—often for a traffic ticket, though a barking dog, a drunken driving charge and lots of other violations of the city code could land you there, too.
In the time Yalman has spent judging cases, she's worn holes in the elbows of one of her black robes. She wears the patched robe now only for homeless court, a program she instituted that takes the municipal court staff to Pete's Place for one afternoon a month to check in on cases there, rather than demanding those folks make the trip all the way down Cerrillos Road to the courtroom.
That court, and the DUI and drug courts that deal with those offenders separately, are part "problem-solving courts" that have ramped up under Yalman's tenure.
"What they're trying to deal with is problems that are really more than just whether or not somebody shoplifted, but underlying substance abuse issues, underlying homeless issue—we try to address those," she says.
When she started 10 years ago, those courts were seeing minimal use. The DUI court had just three participants. Between 2007 and 2013, the DUI court—which targets repeat offenders and those with severe alcohol problems—graduated 150 participants, 131 of whom have not been convicted of another DUI in New Mexico.
Those with long memories may recall the antics of previous municipal court judges—Fran Gallegos and the pink hats convicted drunk drivers wore during their community service, and the alternative sentencing program in drug court that used meditation and acupuncture, or Tom Fiorina's collecting fines near the holidays in the form of a frozen turkey. The careers of those two judges came to an end amid investigations of misconduct, though penalties were waived by the New Mexico Supreme Court after the judges were voted out or resigned from office.
The sum of the changes that have come with Yalman, appointed to finish Gallegos’ term and then twice elected to the job, is an added level of professionalism. For a visual on that, look to the court paperwork. Yalman describes inheriting a loose array of files that weren’t date-stamped and frequently went missing.
"I'd see three people roaming the court for hours on end, looking for files. It drove me crazy," Yalman says. "I'm not saying we never lose files. We do, but much less, and we started imaging just a couple years ago, … so if you can't actually find the file, it's there in the computer."
The court now runs "more like a real court," says Yalman, who practiced law in federal court before taking this job. Other than an interim judge who served for 90 days before her, she's the first lawyer to serve as Santa Fe's municipal judge—a qualification that city law now requires of all candidates for the post.
"To me, a court is just a court. It's not all things to all people," she says. "I really don't think a court can be all things to everybody—it can't solve all the world's problems and … if you read where non-lawyer judges get into trouble, it's that they don't seem to understand the limits of their jurisdiction. They don't seem to understand the limits of their authority, and they often have the best of intentions but they mess things up, so I kind of made an effort to clear everything out of the court that had nothing to do with the court."
Teen court and educational events held at the court, for example, were moved out. Other changes legitimized the court's decisions, like assigning a public defender to all DUI cases. Digitizing records, allowing mediation and using video arraignments to save transporting prisoners to the courthouse or bringing the judge to the jail have also streamlined operations. Yalman gives others credit for these ideas; the changes simply came about during her watch.
"I think we run a very fair and efficient court, and that's really what I tried to do," she says.
Anyone in Santa Fe who drives should care about who becomes the next municipal judge, Yalman says, because traffic violations are the bulk of what the court handles—on the order of more than 10,000 a year. She knows just how pervasive the job's reach is, because everywhere she goes, she says, she runs into people who have come before the court.
"I don't always recognize them, and they don't always recognize me … but it becomes clear," she says. "They'll say, 'Oh, you look like my teacher'—I know I was not their teacher, you know? I know what it is. Then all the sudden, the light bulb goes on."
At some point, most people or a member of their family come to the municipal court.
"The most important quality you want to see in a judge is someone who has the ability to listen and be fair-minded, and she's definitely both of those things," says Elena Cardona, who has worked as a public defender in municipal court for the last three years. "And she's very respectful of the people in court, not just the lawyers but the individuals who are unrepresented—anyone who comes in."
With a new judge on the way, and a new city prosecutor, Chad Chittum, having taken over on Feb. 1, now in place, Yalman says, "It's like a new court," and that change may be good for the city.
Vigil works as a criminal defense attorney, often for assault-and-battery cases and DWI cases. She has been an assistant district attorney and worked with New Mexico Legal Aid. She also served as one of four pro tem judges called to step in when there's a conflict of interest or Yalman is absent.
"I know I can do this, because I'm doing it," Vigil says. She talks about making changes to the court hours to prevent people from needing to take time off work to come before the judge; she's also looking at Bernalillo County's veterans court program to see if something similar could be crafted here that would connect veterans to some of the services available. The restorative justice model deployed in teen court, where she's worked as a judge, is also something she's eyeing.
In the time since she became a lawyer, she says, she's seen the courts become much friendlier toward alternative programs, recognizing that rehabilitation and treatment can be more effective than incarceration. She points to a childhood in Santa Fe and familiarity with the history and culture as sources for understanding and compassion she could bring to the bench.
Gallegos, who grew up in Belen and Dallas before attending college in Portland, Ore., and attaining a law degree from the University of New Mexico, works now as an administrative law judge for the state, hearing DUI cases.
"I had been wanting to be a judge for some time and been encouraged to do that because it's in my nature to be balanced, to see both sides," Gallegos says. His commitment to unbiased judgments extended to the point that when he lost a family member in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, he asked the lawyers he worked with to let him know if they saw any change in his decision-making. So far, he says, he's heard no complaints.
Watching Yalman at work—presiding in DUI or homeless court, or running a trial—he says, he sees her deploying an ability to make everyone feel comfortable but accountable.
"That's something I'll probably need to finesse and will need some JT for—on-the-job training," he says.
Same goes for the task of managing the 18-person staff at the municipal courthouse. Reforms he mentions take aim at the docket, which often leaves people waiting all day for a hearing. A staggered docket could mean the court doesn't essentially call for 40 cases at a time, but instead for each case as it's ready. And he's interested in the Courts to Schools program, which brings the elements of DUI court to 11th and 12th graders to talk about the consequences of drunk driving.
Of the two candidates, Yalman says, "They're both very good. They both have different qualities, different attributes. I think they'll be different judges. … Either one of them would be fine for the court."