Chittum Steps In

The city’s next municipal judge talks track record, plans for court’s future

Santa Feans will welcome a new Municipal Court judge this election season: Chad Chittum is the sole candidate for the job on Nov. 7 ballots. Judge Virginia Vigil, who has held the position since 2016, isn’t seeking re-election Vigil did not return requests for comment for this story.

Chittum, 47, hails from Abilene, Texas, but he’s been a familiar face in the courthouse on Camino Entrada since 2016, when he began work as the city prosecutor. In 2019, he moved into his current job, staff attorney for the court.

Chittum runs day-to-day operations as the court administrator, managing staff and other duties. In addition, he serves as pro-tem judge to relieve Vigil. He tells SFR stepping up to run for judge was his way to follow “a clear career path.”

“It’s just a natural progression,” he says. “I come into the court, right from being a prosecutor, and I have the experience of also knowing criminal procedure, all the case law and trial work experience that I have, but also now I’ve got the behind-the-door experience, so I think it will be a seamless transition.”

Responsibilities of a municipal judge, required to be a lawyer, include: hearing cases; managing trials and arraignments; and crafting and following a budget. Currently, the judge oversees 16 employees and earns a salary of $146,806. While the number of cases can fluctuate, statistics show the court averaged 322 traffic citations monthly since April 2023 and approximately 18 DWIs per month.

Chittum calls current staff’s initiative the court’s biggest strength. As the muni judge, he says he wants to keep that momentum going.

“We don’t want to get complacent,” Chittum says. “We should be constantly trying to improve.”

Chittum tells SFR the court is currently working to get its DWI drug program certified through the Administrative Office of the Courts, which requires education for all partners of the program, including the public defender, the prosecutor, the judge and the program coordinator; and ensures it meets best practice standards. The program aims to help offenders achieve alcohol/drug sobriety in order to prevent them being involved with the system again.

Chittum also plans to establish a specialty court for individuals aged 18 to 25 years old, “to make sure that we’re keeping them out of the system and if they get into the system, make sure they don’t come back,” he says.

Most recently, the court expanded public access by creating an online version of the court docket—a step Chittum says was important because the majority of Municipal Court cases do not appear on the statewide website.

“We’ve gotten that on board to where someone can go online and find out when their next court hearing is. An attorney can go online and find out when their client’s next hearing is, and that really helps,” Chittum says.

The court recently implemented a language access specialist program as well, offering bilingual staffers a 12-week course with the Administrative Office of the Courts whereby they can earn certificates and obtain higher hourly pay.

Chittum says his proudest achievements are the relationships he’s created along the way. Jose Gonzales, a former Santa Fe Police Department lieutenant who retired last June, says Chittum was an effective prosecutor first.

“He’s just so very thorough and really knowledgeable when it comes to prosecution, and he was fair but firm at the same time,” Gonzales tells SFR, adding Chittum kept in close contact with officers. “To be honest with you, in the time I had been with the police department, there were other city prosecutors that just didn’t take that time or make that effort to communicate with the officers on their cases. It was really refreshing with Chad.”

Before he retired, Gonzales also had the chance to see Chittum in action as pro tem judge when he presented traffic violations.

“He just truly takes the facts of the case and bases his decisions off of that. He’s just very fair and very firm, very respectful, and I think that most people would agree that he is just so professional,” the former officer said. “We haven’t had a person like him sitting either in the prosecutor’s chair or on the judge’s chair in the 17 years that I was with the Santa Fe Police Department.”

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