A former Santa Fe Municipal Court employee has quietly won a pair of significant legal victories in her lawsuit alleging that Judge Virginia Vigil illegally fired her for filing a misconduct complaint against the judge.
The case has received little attention since SFR broke news of the allegations in September 2019. But in the last several months, Mary Salazar, who has accused Vigil of violating the state Whistleblower Protection Act, has cleared a legal hurdle that sets the stage for a public airing of her claims in the 13th Judicial District Court in Sandoval County.
In two separate decisions, handed down in August 2019 and December 2020, District Judge George Eichwald declined to toss the case as Vigil's defense team had requested. Eichwald is set to take up the matter at trial on Nov. 8, 2021.
Despite the case's progress in court—and news of Salazar's claims appearing in SFR—Vigil easily won a second four-year term as the city's Municipal Court judge in November 2019. She ran unopposed.
Salazar, a former 12-year employee of the court, alleges that Vigil fired her after she found out that Salazar and several other employees had filed an anonymous complaint against the judge with the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission in September 2017.
It is not clear what's become of the complaint filed with the commission. That's because its work is secret unless the commission finds merit in a given case and sends it on to the state Supreme Court, which would decide on discipline and make that decision public.
As he has for years, commission Executive Director and General Counsel Randall Roybal offered a cryptic response when SFR asked about the status of the complaint against Vigil: There is no "public matter concerning the judge that you're asking about" on file at the Supreme Court for discipline.
SFR, however, got a glimpse of the complaint when Salazar's former lawyer characterized it in 2019. The allegations include that Vigil made changes to a plea agreement without a defendant's knowledge after the defendant had left the courtroom; and that Vigil asked court employees if they knew of anybody a defendant could date—while she was in the courtroom with the defendant. Salazar also accused Vigil of not following proper procedures for criminal and traffic offenses by bargaining during arraignments with defendants who were not represented by attorneys.
Salazar sets out a timeline for the alleged retaliation: Nine months after the employees filed the complaint, on June 21, 2018, Vigil learned about or suspected that a complaint had been filed when a court observer sat in her courtroom most of the day. Five days later, Vigil fired Salazar.
The Albuquerque-based law firm Robles, Rael and Anaya has represented Vigil and the court from the beginning. Attorney Luis Robles argues Vigil fired Salazar as her administrative assistant for lack of professionalism and work ethic. (Salazar alleges that during her time at the court, she never faced any "disciplinary actions, criticism or communications regarding these matters.")
Salazar's legal team says the timeline is proof Vigil likely knew Salazar complained.
The defense says the visit was unrelated to the Judicial Standards Commission—and the meter is running for Santa Feans paying for that defense.
The city has paid the firm $23,533.50 so far. The city's insurance covers retaining outside counsel for this type of case, according to a city spokesman.
Robles took over the case after the firm attempted to have it dismissed based on improper venue back in December 2018. The improper venue motion claimed the case should have been heard in Santa Fe's First Judicial District Court, rather than in Sandoval County, because the Municipal Court is based here.
In his written ruling on Aug. 16, 2019, Eichwald determined that because the court is an "arm of the State of New Mexico," the case would not be dismissed.
Robles made another attempt to get the case thrown out, filing a motion for summary judgment on Feb. 25, 2020, alleging there's no evidence that Vigil knew it was Salazar who had filed the complaint, and that Salazar had faced verbal warnings about her work performance and attitude leading up to her firing, plus at least one written warning. Robles also claimed that the visit from the court observer was "not unusual" and not for a "specific purpose."
Buchanan fired back with evidence, including Salazar's initial complaint to Judicial Standards.
"I feel confident saying, and we'll say this at trial, that my client did raise what she felt were very serious allegations," says Deena Buchanan, Salazar's lawyer.
It was enough to convince Eichwald, who has ordered mediation before the November trial date.
The lawyers expect to eventually go to trial.
"Ms. Salazar was fired for the kind of insubordination you cannot have in a court," Robles says. "If nothing else, a court relies on its institutional reputation and fairness, impartiality, with no games being played."
Robles says Salazar tried to "mind read" Vigil by claiming that her termination was due to the complaint filed with the Standards Commission. He says the judge could not have known Salazar was one of the people who went to the commission because those complaints are confidential. He declined to make Vigil available for an interview for this story.
Buchanan disagrees. She tells SFR there's strong circumstantial evidence that proves her client's claims, including a second complaint brought by another employee to the Standards Commission against Vigil.
Buchanan tells SFR the two known complaints submitted to the Standards Commission against Vigil are "very similar" in their allegations of misconduct.
"There's overlap between issues we knew Judge Vigil was aware of and the specific things raised in my client's complaint," Buchanan says. "Also, there's circumstantial evidence that we found that was pretty strong showing that she was aware that there was a complaint and that she suspected that my client was the one that raised the complaint."