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Running for Magistrate

Four hopefuls vying for open seat on Santa Fe County Magistrate Court bench

Four hopefuls are campaigning to replace Judge George Anaya, Jr., for the Division 2 seat on the Santa Fe County Magistrate Court bench.

Anaya has announced he will not seek reelection after serving more than 25 years.

Magistrate judges handle a variety of criminal misdemeanors, landlord-tenant disputes and traffic violations. They spend much of their time on DWI cases, but they also hear civil cases with an amount in controversy of up to $10,000, as well as felony preliminary hearings to determine probable cause.

In a so-called “court of the people,” the next judge presiding over Division 2 will hear cases that directly impact local residents, addressing myriad social issues at Santa Fe County’s core. With no Republicans filing, the winner of the June 7 Democratic primary will take Anaya’s seat after the general election. The candidates have somewhat varied backgrounds as paralegals, court managers, clerks and prosecutors. Magistrate judges in New Mexico are not required to hold law degrees, and just one of the candidates does.

The contestants are John Baca, Dev Atma Khalsa, Melissa Mascareñas and Michael Roybal.

Baca, 44, a longtime sports referee who goes by the nickname “Baby Blue,” worked as a court manager for 18 years, serving under past magistrates, while simultaneously working as a reserve deputy sheriff. Now, he works for the New Mexico State Land Office as an executive secretary and administrator. He also helps “people at their lowest times of need” at the Rivera Family Funeral Home, he says.

“I want to do more for the community,” Baca says. “The crime problem is a big issue. Me being out in the community and being out with the student athletes in sports, I want to be able to reach out to them and hopefully try to guide these kids in the right direction.”

Baca says the caseloads for the First Judicial District Magistrate judges have grown tremendously in recent years, but believes he has the wherewithal to handle the stress.

“I wouldn’t have any problem seeing that many cases, because I used to be the clerk for the judge at one time,” he says. “The only difference is now I’m going to be the one doing the case and making my judgment on what is handed to me.”

Khalsa, also 44, handled cases in private practice for two years before moving to the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office in 2019. As an assistant DA, he juggles a docket of about 60 to 80 felony cases at the Rio Arriba Magistrate Court. The only lawyer to file for the magistrate seat, Khalsa says that qualification by itself “is not enough…to make me the best candidate, but I am the best candidate.”

Khalsa has developed a five-point plan to focus on court transparency; housing equity; “rights-focused DWI cases”; identifying addicted populations; and ending violence. He says there is no better place than the Magistrate Court to inform the public on issues such as where to find rental assistance in landlord-tenant situations.

“That may circumvent your entire need to be in court,” he tells SFR.

With regard to housing equity, Khalsa says “people need to know their judge is going to be fair” in disputes between renters and property owners.

The state Supreme Court recently ordered that law enforcement officers aren’t required to appear for pretrial interviews, which officials believe will help improve New Mexico’s historically low DWI conviction rate. Khalsa says even if police don’t appear, he would expect prosecutors to present evidence in a streamlined process.

Khalsa believes Santa Fe is appropriately connecting people with addictions to services, rather than using “punishment for punishment’s sake.” He also wants to address New Mexico’s high domestic-violence murder rate by using quick action and consistent penalties—and installing a domestic violence court program.

Born and raised in the Pojoaque Valley, Mascareñas went to work as a paralegal at the First Judicial District Court with Judge Petra Jimenez Maes after graduating from the College of Santa Fe with a degree in public administration. She worked there for nine years before moving with Maes to the state Supreme Court in 1998.

Former Chief Justice Patricio Serna “is a great mentor to me, and also the late District Judge Carol Vigil,” Mascareñas says. “Judge Carol would always tell me, ‘You need to run for judge Melissa.’ I would say, ‘I will run for judge one of these days,’ and now I’m doing it.”

Mascareñas eventually moved on to the New Mexico Environment Department. An advanced paralegal and chief records manager, she was responsible for all of the records that came into the department. For 17 years, she accompanied attorneys and general counsel to hearings and filed court documents.

Now 54, she spends time volunteering on the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, or serving as the vice regent for the Catholic Daughters of the Americas.

“I think our community is important,” Mascareñas says. “I think as citizens we need to be able to help each other out. In being a magistrate judge, because I’m so involved in my community, I know my community, and I think that I can better help people that way.”

At 32 years old, Roybal says he’d bring needed youth to the bench. He has worked in the courts since 2014, starting off at the magistrate level. He then moved to the clerk’s office at the First Judicial District Court, before he was asked to serve as court monitor for Judge Jason Lidyard.

Roybal says his time under Lidyard has allowed him to explore a wide range of cases.

“That’s one thing I can really bring to the table: the ability to adapt to each kind of case that comes before the court,” he says. “I understand that as a judge, I will have the jurisdiction to make an impact on someone’s life when they come before the court.”

He says he’s seen people go in and out of the court system, which is why Roybal decided to run for office. It’s time, he says, that elected officials begin addressing repeat offenders to make them functioning members of society.

“That’s my goal, to be proactive and not reactive,” he says. “I’d really like to get my hands dirty and start new programs that the court allows to really focus on rehabilitating our offenders back, while they are held accountable for the crimes they’ve been convicted of.”

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