Lawsuit settlement changes way magistrate judges elected

By Gabe Monte: CNJ staff writer

By Gabriel Monte

The system to elect magistrate judges in Curry County will change in the 2010 election because of a recent lawsuit settlement.

Curry County residents Johnny Chavez and Terry Martin sued the state three years ago to change magistrate-judge positions from at-large to districted positions in hopes it would improve chances of minority candidates running for the position.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge C. Leroy Hansen signed an agreement between the plaintiffs and the state on April 1 in which the 37 precincts in the county will be grouped into two magistrate judge districts. One judge will be elected by voters within each district.

At-large positions are elected by the entire county.

The judges will still have countywide jurisdictions and will be assigned cases randomly.

Chavez, who has lost attempts at the magistrate judge’s seat, said districted positions are more likely to have minorities. Since 1982, all nine minority candidates who have run for an at-large magistrate office in Curry County have lost, according to the lawsuit.

Curry County Magistrate Judge Richard Hollis said the lawsuit circumvents the Legislature, which he feels should decide the issue. He said he filed a motion April 15 to intervene in the decision so he can review the facts presented in the case and provide information that could be relevant in hopes of getting the decision overturned.

Hollis said he doubts districting will improve chances of minorities winning the seat because of the demographics of the county.

“I believe that it’s a voter apathy issue,” said Hollis, who was re-elected to the Magistrate Judge Division 2 seat in 2006. “If citizens would register to vote and exercise their right to vote, there would be opportunity for many people to participate in the process.”

The original lawsuit against the county and the state was filed in 2005. In 2006, the county was dismissed as a defendant in the suit after it made the argument that the issue was a legislative matter, according to County Attorney Stephen Doerr.

Hollis said he recruited Sens. Clint Harden and Stuart Ingle, and Rep. Anna Crook as intervening parties in the lawsuit.

Harden said the suit sets a precedent for any citizen to change laws by going around the Legislature.

“I don’t think it’s a right way to make a law,” he said.

Hollis said if magistrate judges are elected by district, it could increase the number of motions for parties to recuse the judge from the case. He said it could give an appearance of impropriety to court rulings since judges could have opposing parties that vote in different districts.

But Manuel Lopez, who represented Chavez and Martin, said judges are supposed to rule by the merits of the case, regardless of which district the parties live in.

“The judges are bound by judicial canon of ethics,” he said.

Curry County Magistrate Judge Duane Castleberry said because the county was so diverse, districting magistrate judge positions would not make a difference for minority candidates.

“I think that the at-large voting system is the most fair way anybody can be elected at this job”, he said. “When you go to districting and restricting people, I don’t think we’re helping anybody.”

New Mexico Magistrate Court Judges Association President Steve Jones said he isn’t against districting if it would solve minority election issues.

But he said the change should come from the Legislature, not the court system.

“I like the legislative process and I like things to go through all the hearings and when it doesn’t, well, the supreme court has told us as magistrate judges that the appearance of impropriety is bad as impropriety itself,” said Jones who is a Torrance County magistrate judge.

Harden said two bills to change the magistrate system to districting in Curry County were raised in the state Legislature but did not pass.