A longtime fixture in Santa Fe's legal community is certain to win a second, four-year term as the city's Municipal Court judge.
Virginia Vigil is running unopposed for the lone full-time seat on the bench, meaning she'll continue deciding on about 150 small but important cases facing Santa Feans each week, from traffic tickets to littering violations to DWIs.
She was happy to speak with SFR about what she sees as her accomplishments and improvements to the court—diversion programs to keep people with substance abuse problems out of the justice system, improving the court's automation processes and more.
Nearly everyone else SFR asked about Vigil's performance as a judge declined to speak on the record, but her near-certain election comes against a backdrop of simmering trouble.
Several employees have leveled allegations of judicial misconduct against Vigil, SFR has learned, including improper communications with defendants and altering plea agreements. And the court is facing a lawsuit filed in state District Court alleging Vigil violated the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act by firing an employee.
For the first time, SFR reveals the details of those complaints and the lawsuit, which names the Municipal Court, but not Vigil, as a defendant. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, back pay, reinstatement to the employee's old job and attorney's fees.
Vigil is accused of firing Mary Salazar after she filed an anonymous complaint against the judge. Salazar, who worked at the court for 12 years, and two others submitted the complaint to the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission in September 2017.
Around June 21, 2018, Vigil learned about or suspected that a complaint had been filed when a representative from Justice Education Systems sat in her courtroom most of the day, observing Vigil, according to the lawsuit.
Just five days after the representative's visit, Vigil wrote Salazar to say she would allow Salazar to resign but only if she quit that day before 5 pm, the lawsuit says. Salazar said she was prepared to resign the next day—but the court did not accept it and fired her.
Vigil said she fired Salazar as her administrative assistant for lack of professionalism and work ethic, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges Salazar, during her time at the court, never faced any "disciplinary actions, criticism or communications regarding these matters."
The court's contracted, private attorney has not submitted a formal response to the lawsuit, which was filed in Sandoval County last October.
Reached by telephone last week, Vigil tells SFR she doesn't know much about the case. "I haven't had a chance to talk to anyone regarding it, so it is a strict, official, unequivocal denial," she says. Regarding the multiple complaints filed against her with the Judicial Standards Commission, Vigil says: "I'm not at liberty to discuss anything that happens with the judicial commission."
Salazar is suing the Santa Fe Municipal Court for wrongful termination under the Whistleblower Protection Act, alleging that the only reason for her firing was Vigil's anger over the complaint.
Daniel Faber, an Albuquerque-based attorney representing Salazar, tells SFR that the complaint submitted to the Judicial Standards Commission included accusations that could have led to strict discipline against Vigil.
Complaints filed with the commission are not public information. Faber also says that it's not clear exactly how Vigil found out Salazar was one of the whistleblowers.
The other two court employees who filed the complaint with Salazar are not planning on joining the lawsuit, according to Faber.
Complaints submitted to the commission are confidential, but Faber tells SFR employees allege in it that Vigil made changes to a plea agreement without a defendant's knowledge on one occasion after the defendant had left the courtroom.
In another instance, Vigil allegedly asked court employees present if they knew of anybody a defendant could date—while she was in the courtroom with the defendant.
Vigil is also accused of not following proper procedures for criminal and traffic offenses by bargaining during arraignments with defendants who were not represented by attorneys.
The complaint is one of at least two SFR has learned about, bringing the total number of employees coming forward with similar allegations against Vigil to at least four. SFR has learned that a second complaint filed with the Judicial Standards Commission also alleged that Vigil bargained with defendants during arraignments without legal counsel present.
Judicial Standards Commission Executive Director Randall Roybal declined to comment on complaints against Vigil, pointing out that he is legally forbidden from discussing any ongoing cases before the commission. If Judicial Standards determines a case should move forward, the state Supreme Court ultimately decides on discipline.
"I don't know if she's still under investigation or not," Faber tells SFR via phone. "What I'm concerned about is after [Salazar] filed [the complaint] and after Judge Vigil knew it, my client gets fired."
SFR's efforts to speak with people in the Santa Fe legal community about Vigil or what it's like to work with her as an attorney or judge proved largely unsuccessful. For example, SFR attempted to interview the municipal court's public defender, David Thomas, and the city prosecutor, Chad Chittum. In writing, they declined to be interviewed about working with Vigil because of the "nature of our profession."
When pressed for an interview about the Municipal Court's place in the community and their work only, Thomas wrote in an email to SFR that all interview requests first had to go through Lilia Chacon, the city of Santa Fe's spokeswoman.
This puzzled Chacon, who said she'd "never worked with" either Thomas or Chittum. The interviews never happened.
Private attorneys in town and even a former district attorney also declined to discuss Vigil's judicial performance or her long service as a prosecutor, lobbyist or county commissioner.
Still, Vigil appears headed toward an easy road for a second term on the bench.