On a Tuesday afternoon, a dozen people wait quietly in the Santa Fe Municipal Court, layered between as many shades of beige that cover the walls, the fabric on the seats in the gallery, the judge's bench.

Cellphones aren't allowed in the building, so everyone looks straight ahead, the silence broken only by clerks shuffling papers, a painful-sounding cough and a squeaky wheel as an employee rolls out a large whiteboard with names on one side and colorful magnets inching their way, at various stages, toward "graduation" from Drug and DUI Court at the other end.

Twice a month, Judge Virginia Vigil presides over the specialty court program. The city calls it an "alternative sentencing program," a six-month course available for repeat offenders. Instead of jail time, participants go through drug and alcohol testing, individual and group therapy, twice-monthly court hearings and mandatory attendance at 12-step recovery meetings.

The city pays the program's full tab.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we have a strong culture of addicted people in Santa Fe County," Vigil tells SFR in her office. "I think that's a huge challenge for our community. And the biggest challenge is there are no resources. And this is the same song that we had when I was a prosecutor."

The programs are something that Vigil has taken pride in since she was elected in 2016. It's just a slice of the Municipal Court's hectic, five-day-a-week docket, though. Vigil and a rotating cast of pro-tem judges decide on about 150 cases per week regarding traffic violations, shoplifting, DWIs, drug possession, trespassing, battery, resisting arrest and alcohol in public places wihtin the city limits. The court handles all misdemeanors, including violations of the city code, such as littering, pets without proper vaccinations and building without construction permits.

Virginia Vigil on the bench, where she will serve another four years as Municipal Court judge.
Virginia Vigil on the bench, where she will serve another four years as Municipal Court judge. | Katherine Lewin

It plays a vital role in the state's justice system by keeping magistrate and district courts from becoming burdened with misdemeanor cases.

But municipal courts have also come under intense criticism in recent years, most notably in Ferguson, Missouri, where the city court threw gasoline on already existing racial tensions by criminalizing and intentionally gouging millions of dollars out of black and minority residents there.

Santa Fe can't evaluate the local court on that metric, however. That's because it does not track defendants' race or ethnicity and has no plans to do so, Vigil tells SFR. A national expert on city courts and criminal justice calls that approach "naive at best," particularly in a place like Santa Fe, with its large non-white population.

The People’s Court

As Vigil swings her shiny black judge's robe around her shoulders, her long blonde hair caught under the collar, she tells SFR she believes she's contributing to Santa Fe by "making decisions that affect the safety of the community that are fair and judicious."

The court deals with troubles and laws that are part of residents' daily lives.

The importance can't be understated, according to Angela "Spence" Pacheco, who has been a part-time judge in the Municipal Court for the last two years after working as a prosecutor in Santa Fe for decades.

Angela “Spence” Pacheco, a former prosecutor and part-time Municipal Court judge, says the lower courts should be an “accessible” form of justice
Angela “Spence” Pacheco, a former prosecutor and part-time Municipal Court judge, says the lower courts should be an “accessible” form of justice | Peter St. Cyr

"Municipal courts really are a people's court," Pacheco tells SFR via phone. "Unless it's a DWI, where it has all kinds of legal ramifications, for simple tickets and stuff people shouldn't have to pay for a lawyer. They should be able to go and try to resolve the issue. It really should be an accessible form of justice for the community."

Pacheco also lauds Santa Fe's alternative sentencing programs: the DUI and Drug Court that aims to rehabilitate people instead of criminalize them and Homeless Court, which takes proceedings to the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete's Place to meet those who are homeless at a place that's easier for them to get to.

But that access costs money: In 2016 and 2017, court fines and fees paid by Santa Feans generated nearly $1.5 million for the city. In 2018, the court collected $618,820. In 2019 so far, $411,163 has been paid in fines and fees.

The city sends most of that cash back out the door to pay for court operations. According to the city website, there are 14 employees in the court division, including Vigil, who earns about $104,882 each year. The court's expenese budget in FY2020 was estimated at more than $333,000.

How We Got Her

A particularly gruesome child abuse case is what drove Vigil from her work as an assistant district attorney from 1991 to 1994 into the rest of her 25-year career as a lawyer, lobbyist, county commissioner and, finally, to presiding over the Municipal Court.

Municipal Court judges serve four-year terms. In 2016, Vigil ran against Ignacio Gallegos, another Santa Fe lawyer, and won. The seat was vacant because the previous judge retired. They did not have to run against an incumbent.

Another election for Vigil's spot is coming up Nov. 5. She is running uncontested this year and will serve another four years.

"For me personally, it's very purposeful and a way of me being a part of my community at a level that feels as if I am contributing … I feel very strongly about that because I was born and raised here," Vigil says. "I think the benefit of doing that is when somebody comes up to me and they say 'My accident occurred on the corner of Alameda and Canyon Road,' I visualize all these places."

Vigil is also facing a whistleblower lawsuit and several complaints submitted by employees to the Judicial Ethics Commission.

Despite its inconspicuous brown and beige building situated in Santa Fe's Southside on Camino Entrada, sentencing decisions made by Vigil and the other pro-tem judges who substitute for her can have immediate and lasting impacts.

Change Is Not Coming

After three and a half years on the bench, Vigil says she hopes to make "technological" changes to the court and make its records "paperless."

The court has a comprehensive database Vigil says is underutilized.

"It's very critical that every case gets reported appropriately because it goes to the state and that requires us to have really good database training," she says

But there's one crucial aspect of collecting data on the Santa Feans who pass through the Municipal Court that Vigil says she has no plans to start tracking: race and ethnicity.

Vigil claims that "it's not possible for (the) court to prey on minority neighborhoods."

"There should be no documented knowledge of a defendant's race when processing charges as, on its face, the knowledge of race may play into preconceived notions, impressions or prejudices," Vigil writes in an email. "We do not issue violations of the law. We process them."

While the Municipal Court may not issue violations, the judges choose the punishment or lack thereof—face-to-face or through a video hearing, where someone's race or ethnicity can often be seen and potentially work against them.

Christine Cole, vice president and executive director of The Crime and Justice Institute, has worked for more than 30 years in policing, institutional and community-based corrections, victim advocacy, community organizing and prosecution as a researcher and writer. She focuses in particular on how data can positively influence safety and justice reform.

Cole says that in her experience, the idea that it's not possible for a municipal court to negatively impact low-income communities and that tracking race data is unnecessary is "naive at best."

It could be fear of what the race and ethnicity data might show that keeps courts and other institutions from wanting to track it, she says by telephone.

"I think it's really scary to think about tracking race," Cole says. "On the other hand you can't defend yourself without data. If you're not worried about what anyone is going to see in the data, then collect the data, but don't say, 'We don't collect data because we know we're doing things well.'"

DWI violations are among the most frequent offenses Vigil decides on at court. An SFR review of Vigil's rulings from August 2018 through August 2019 shows 163 DWI cases total, according to data obtained through a public records request.

DWI checkpoints are sometimes used disproportionately in low-income, minority communities such as the Southside. The Santa Fe Police Department has recently been criticized for the practice.

In 2018, the Santa Fe New Mexican found that 22 of the 27 DWI checkpoints conducted by SFPD since 2016 were staged in the south and southwest areas of the city—where most of the city's immigrant, Hispanic and Latino residents live and despite many of the city's popular bars and restaurants sitting in the city's northern section.

"If police are going to be doing a series of checks in a particular neighbourhood, it behooves them to explain to the community why," Cole says. "If it feels like things are unfair, it doesn't matter what the reality is. What can the police or the criminal justice system do to help describe their activities to make it feel more rational or connected to a public safety gain so people don't feel that things are unfair?"

Using data is a way that Municipal Court and city officials could check the work of other arms of the justice system to ensure discriminatory practices aren't gouging a low-income and minority community like the Southside. Piling fines and fees onto people who are already struggling to make ends meet creates a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape.

Vigil says she takes poverty into account when she makes rulings.

"We live in such a diversified community," Vigil tells SFR. "Many people who get citations just pay them and don't even come to the court. Those people who need to challenge it for whatever reason, and many times it's because they can't afford the fine, which is fine, because in all fairness if they can't, I will allow community service. It isn't as if we're trying to draw blood from a turnip type thing."

The court's data suggest Vigil is following her word, at least in part, on that. Of the 163 DWI offenses brought before her over the past year, 98 were resolved by a deferred sentence and 33 ended with guilty/no contest pleas. But the court's data doesn't show whether the deferred sentences came with fines or for how much.

Because of the lack of race and ethnicity data, there's no way of knowing who is being most affected by DWI offenses or any other violations handled by the Municipal Court.

"Part of what happens is issues that would otherwise be civil, meaning non-criminal, become criminal for failure to appear or failure to pay or failure to pay on time," Cole says. "The reason we call the police for petty misdemeanors is we want the behavior to stop. What's the best way or the most efficient way to make the behavior stop? Is it by piling on fines and fees?"

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Judge Yalman moved to District Court.