Lately, it seems as though there is an article in the newspaper almost every week about another judge who has gotten into trouble. Most, but not all, of these misbehaving judges are Magistrate Judges. Why is this happening, and what can be done about it?
Magistrate Judges are paid more than $47,000 per year in salary, plus enjoy excellent benefits and a liberal pension. This is much higher than what the average New Mexican makes. So these jobs are quite desirable.
What are the qualifications for a Magistrate Judge? He or she must reside in the district where the judicial vacancy is, and must be registered to vote there. Graduation from high school or a GED is required. That is it. Nada mas.
I am prejudiced because I am a lawyer, but it seems to me that a judge in such an important court should have to be a licensed lawyer. Requiring judges to be lawyers is certainly no guarantee the judge will be ethical, know the law and do a good job. There are plenty of bad lawyers who would be bad judges. But it sure makes it more likely that we would have good judges if they had to be lawyers.
Of course, whenever this subject comes up, the incumbent Magistrate Judges rise up and protest: "Magistrate Court is the people's court'!" they proclaim. What does that mean? That people do not deserve knowledgeable judges who will follow the rules and law? Methinks the real problem is that almost all Magistrate Judges are not lawyers, and they do not want to lose their jobs.
Las Cruces' Municipal Court requires that their judges be lawyers. Municipal Court is every bit as much a "people's court" as Magistrate Court. We need to have the same high standards for our judges across the board.
Don't get me wrong. There are many fine non-lawyer Magistrate Judges. But too many of them are not qualified. The law and society have gotten too complicated to have judges who are not educated in the law.
Years ago, the state legislature addressed this problem and created a new kind of court, "Metropolitan Court." Metro Judges must be lawyers. The legislature said that only counties with a certain minimum population would replace their Magistrate Courts with Metropolitan Courts. At that time, only Albuquerque's county, Bernalillo, qualified for a Metro Court.
As Doña Ana County got near the population number justifying a Metro Court, the legislature raised the minimum population. This has happened over and over again as Doña Ana County's population has grown and reached the level that qualifies for a Metro Court. Some people think that the local politicos pressed the legislature to keep upping the minimum population figure to make sure Doña Ana County never qualified for a Metro Court. Why? So, the Magistrates in Las Cruces would not lose their jobs.
Now, though, there is a movement to change Las Cruces over to Metro Courts. State Senator Leonard Lee Rawson got the legislature to create a committee to study whether Las Cruces/Doña Ana County should replace its Magistrate Court with a Metropolitan Court. That committee is at work on this right now. Here's hoping it results in a Metro Court for Las Cruces. And maybe someday, the rest of New Mexico can have all judges be lawyers.
Robert (Tito) Meyer practices law in Las Cruces, representing people