Secret Standards

Santa Fe magistrate judge could face discipline over his arrest for DWI

Magistrate Judge Dev Atma Khalsa took office in January. (Courtesy Dev Atma Khalsa)

Santa Fe Magistrate Judge Dev Atma Khalsa’s long-term future on the bench is unclear, but for now it seems he’s in a holding pattern while a criminal case against him works its way through the system. Because of secrecy provisions in the New Mexico Constitution regarding Judicial Standards Commission proceedings, it’s still unknown how or when Khalsa might face workplace discipline for his arrest.

For now, the newly elected magistrate judge, who’s been on the job for less than three months, is not hearing cases—in fact, he’s barred from the courthouse.

Khalsa pleaded not guilty on March 1 of misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a valid license and careless driving after he rolled his 4Runner in the wee hours of Feb. 26 at the St. Francis exit from northbound Interstate 25. His case is scheduled for a Municipal Court pretrial conference March 29. Khalsa could also see sanctions from the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, separate from any municipal court proceedings.

According to the state constitution, which established the commission, judges are expected to “maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives.”

Judicial Standards Commission Executive Director and General Counsel Phyllis Dominguez tells SFR she cannot comment directly about Khalsa’s case because of the confidentiality requirement outlined in the state constitution.

“The only time something is public upon filing is if we have a trial here at the commission, and the trial record is public upon filing with the Supreme Court,” Dominguez says.

Speaking about the process in general, Dominguez says the commission can suspend a judge while its members consider next steps.

Even though state officials remain tight-lipped about Khalsa’s judicial career, his lawyer, through a statement to SFR, signaled that the magistrate judge is in contact with the commission.

“Judge Khalsa understands that judges are held to a higher standard than other public officials; he is taking this matter very seriously and is cooperating fully with the Judicial Standards Commission,” his lawyer Kitren Fischer says.

The commission might not wait for the criminal case, however.

A now-former Bernalillo County district judge quickly resigned and agreed to never run for or fill a judicial seat again days after she was arrested for suspicion of DWI in 2019. Deborah Walker pleaded guilty to drinking and driving and was sentenced to a year of probation weeks after her arrest. But before she had even made an appearance in court, let alone before a conviction, the commission had asked Walker for an explanation about her then alleged actions.

“Please provide the Commission with an explanation of this incident and the factual and legal basis for your conduct,” then-Commission Chair Joyce Bustos wrote the day after Walker’s arrest.

Khalsa showed up for work the morning after his arrest, at which point the chief district judge verbally ordered Khalsa be removed from the bench.

Khalsa, says Barry Massey, a spokesman for the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, “is not hearing any cases and is not permitted inside the courthouse at this time.” Cases that would normally be assigned to Khalsa are being divvied up with the help of Los Alamos County Magistrate Judge Catherine Taylor.

Khalsa, a former assistant district attorney, beat out three opponents last year in the primary election for magistrate judge and was the only candidate with a law degree. SFR endorsed Khalsa during the general election, partly because of his experience as both a private practice attorney and as a prosecutor, although by that time he was running unopposed.

One of his campaign planks was a “rights-centered DWI process” and, in a campaign video from last year, Khalsa promised to “focus on rights adjudication in DWIs.” That means, he said, a promise to hold all parties accountable to work together to determine whether “a case has a meaningful set of issues within it that affects the defendant’s rights.” If not, he said, “that should be on a track toward a plea deal. It should not be wasting the state’s resources for a jury trial.”

According to videos released by Santa Fe Police of Khalsa’s arrest, he referenced his job to police at least once. In a video of Khalsa in a police holding room, after police tell him he is under arrest and cannot leave, he asks for his phone so he “can at least let the other judge know that I’m here, so there’s not this loop backlog where they’re expecting me to cover shit and I’m not covering it.”

An officer heard in the video tells Khalsa that he will eventually get access to his phone to pull any numbers he might need to make a call from the jail.

Santa Fe Police initially sought to charge Khalsa with aggravated DWI for refusing a blood test, but later reduced that charge after they acknowledged officers had failed to first offer Khalsa a breath test.

Editor’s note: Khalsa’s March 29 pretrial conference is not before a judge. An earlier version of the story stated otherwise and has been corrected.

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