The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) is recommending that voters vote “NO” to retain 4 of the 18 judges on the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court with the recommendations posted on its web site.
The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission is recommending that voters vote “NO” to retain Judges Michelle Castillo Dowler, Kenny Montoya, Linda Rogers and Judge Edward Benavidez.
According to the commission, the four “do not retain” judges had different deficiencies.
JPEC court observers raised concerns about Judge Castillo Dowler’s demeanor and impartiality during court hearings.
JPEC officials reported on its website that in Judge Kenney Montoya’s meeting with the JPEC, he failed to recognize and didn’t commit to try improve his knowledge “regarding substantive law and the rules of procedure and evidence”.
According to JPEC, Judge Linda Rogers scored high in some regards, but attorneys raised concerns about her demeanor on the bench, and her scores among resource staffers, who include police officers, were low.
In Judge Benavidez’s case, JPEC found he had some of the lowest approval ratings among lawyers, those that appear before him, and his ratings continued to decrease after he was evaluated by JPEC midway through his term with no mention of the fact that he oversees the drug court program which is one of the most effective programs.
The Metropolitan Recovery Court Program is a highly critical program that has an impact on people’s lives by offering repeat DWI offenders a chance at rehabilitation and recovery instead of incarceration.
On October 23, 2018, the Albuquerque Journal issued its editorial advocating voters to retain virtually all 18 Metro Judges currently serving, including the 4 that the JPEC recommended not be retained.
You can read the Journal recommendations for retention of all the Metro Judges here:
In its Editorial endorsement to retain all 4 Judges the JPEC wants removed from the bench, the Journal specifically referenced what the 4 had had accomplished to justify voting “YES” for retention and said:
“While we respect JPEC, we disagree after interviewing JPEC and the judges and looking at their records.”
The Journal went on to recommends voters retain all 18 Judges on the bench including Benavidez, Castillo Dowler, Montoya and Rogers as well as the other Metro Court judges up for retention: Henry Alaniz, Rosie Lazcano Allred, Vidalia Chavez, Rosemary Cosgrove-Aguilar, Maria Dominguez, Sandra Engel, Yvette Gonzales, Jill Martinez, Daniel Ramczyk, Christine Eve Rodriguez, Frank Sedillo, Renee Torres, Victor Valdez and Courtney Bryn Weaks.
THE BERNALILLO COUNTY METROPOLITAN COURT
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court is often referred to as the “people’s court” and it is a court of “limited jurisdiction.”
As a court of limited jurisdiction, Metro Court Judges deal with misdemeanor crimes, such as traffic citations, misdemeanor DWI charges, misdemeanor domestic violence cases, misdemeanor criminal charges, arraignments and bond hearing, civil landlord-tenant and civil disputes of up to $5,000 and for that reason hearings can often become very emotional and contentious.
Without question, the Metropolitan Court is the busiest court in the State of New Mexico.
There are 18 Metropolitan Court Judges with each caring crushing caseloads.
In 2017, the total number of traffic cases going to arraignment and handled by the Metro Court Judges was 28,643.
Mid-year for the 2017-2018, 13,053 traffic cases went to arraignment and were handled by a Metro Court Judge.
Statistics compiled by the New Mexico Supreme Court for the Metropolitan Court for the period of July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017 reflect the following caseload statistics:
METRO COURT CIVIL COURT STATISTICS:
General Civil Cases: 5,390 disposed
Landlord Tenant Cases: 11,190 disposed
TOTAL CIVIL CASES: 16,580 disposed
Total jury and non-jury trials: 12,912 disposed
METRO COURT CRIMINAL COURT STATISTICS:
Misdemeanor Cases: 11,594 cases disposed
Misdemeanor DWI/DUI: 2,640 cases disposed
Traffic Cases: 28,844 cases disposed
Misdemeanor Domestic Violence: 5,711
Misdemeanor Jury Trials: 178
DWI/DUI Jury Trials: 675
Domestic Violence Jury Trials: 2,122
Misdemeanor Bench Trials: 7,239
Misdemeanor DWI/DUI Bench Trials: 675
Domestic Violence Bench Trials: 2,122
EVALUATING THE EVALUATORS
The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) was created by the Supreme Court of New Mexico to improve the performance of judges and provide useful, credible information to voters on judges standing for retention.
The JPEC is made of up 15 individuals, 7 lawyers and 8 non-lawyers, who are appointed to staggered terms by the Supreme Court of New Mexico.
Commission members are selected from nominations by the Governor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore, House Minority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and President of the State Bar.
Members are appointed to represent divergent professions, backgrounds and geographical areas of the state.
Members go through an approval process and agree to donate a significant amount of time to evaluate judges midway through their terms in office as well as when they are standing for retention.
All New Mexico Court Judges at all levels are initially elected in partisan elections to full terms and then after serving the term, they must go before voters thereafter for retention to serve another term.
Every election cycle where Judges appear on the ballot, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission evaluates judges by sending out a confidential survey to all licensed attorneys who grade the Judges and the Commission then rates the judges and recommends to voters who they should retain.
JPEC evaluates judges in five major areas: legal ability, fairness, communication skills, preparation, and temperament and control over proceedings.
To perform the evaluations, the JPEC distributes confidential surveys to licensed attorneys, court jurors and others who interact with the court.
The commission also interviews the judges, reviews statistics from the Administrative Office of the Courts and sends observers into the courtroom.
New Mexico judges who are up for retention must receive approval from 57% of voters to keep their seat on the bench and not the 50% plus one required in contested races.
The JPEC posts all the results and recommendations to retain or not retain on its web site.
Historically, judges who JPEC recommends not be retained receive about 12% fewer votes than judges who are recommended for retention.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
It is very noteworthy that the Albuquerque Journal would take such a strong opposite position on the 4 Judges from that of the JPEC.
The Albuquerque Journal has been highly critical of Judges recently and have taken sharp issue with Judges in editorial’s regarding sentencings and decisions made in criminal cases.
Two recent cases where the Journal has editorialized on a Judge’s decision was the Judge who rejected a plea agreement in the murder case of 9-year-old Victoria Martens and the Taos District Judge who released the 5 defendants without bond who were accused of terrorism and the killing of a 10 year old child at a remote compound.
Virtually all Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judges carry what many trial attorneys would consider crushing caseloads.
All too often, certain segments of the New Mexico Bar, court personnel who work for them or police officers who appear before them, target and disparage Metro Judges because they do not like the Metro Judge’s rulings or personal treatment and want the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission to make a negative recommendation at election time.
The JPEC recommendation have a definite impact on any Metro Judge’s chances for retention.
Any Judge who does not secure a “yes” vote from 57% of those voting on their retention are removed from office and the Governor then appoints a judge to fill the vacancy who then must run in the next general election in a partisan race.
All State of New Mexico Judges are strictly prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct from holding any elected or appointed positions in political parties.
All State Judges are strictly prohibited from endorsing any candidate for office and cannot solicit donations for elections.
Candidates running for Judge must have registered measured finance committees to raise money for them to prevent the Judges from knowing who donated to their campaigns.
A Judge is also prevented by the Code of Judicial Conduct from making “extrajudicial comments” to the media or groups that may reflect on their fairness and impartiality which is the likely reason why the 4 judges singled out declined to make public comment on the JPEC ratings.
Judges are prohibited from defending their decisions and sentencings and their job performance in a public forum outside of their courtrooms so criticizing judges is like “shooting fish” in a barrel.
Once the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission issues its ratings, there is virtually very little or no recourse for any Judge to dispute the no retention recommendation given to them by the JPEC.
The JPEC does not give “equal time” on their web page to the Judges who are rated as would be the case at a debate on an incumbent candidate’s job performance.
The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission’s is suppose “to provide useful, credible information to voters on judges standing for retention”.
It is doubtful that confidential surveys from those who may have a personal axe to grind against any judge are much of a use to give a complete and accurate picture of any judge’s job performance everyday they are on the bench.
The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission wants voter’s to accept as gospel without challenge the recommendations they make on retention.
All the current Metro Judges by and large are all highly dedicated public servants performing the best they can to discharge their duties in a fair and impartial manner.
There has to be a better way for JPEC to seek removal of Judges for poor job performance than to go to voters with recommendation and removal should be done by the Supreme Court.
If there is indeed a problem with the job performance of any judge that would justify removal, the appropriate remedy would be an investigation by the Judicial Standards Commission and result in the Judge’s removal by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Voters should ignore the JPEC recommendations regarding the 4 Metro Judges they have singled out in this election.
Voters should vote to retain all 18 of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judges and not blindly accept the recommendations of the JPEC.