New Mexico Chief Justice Judith Nakamura on Monday pushed lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee for more funding for new judge positions and beefed-up security in courts across the state. The committee is not directly involved in crafting the state budget, but Nakamura and Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, discussed what they argued is a need for $1.53 million to hire more judges, including one in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, and more than $2.7 million to bolster court security in a state where only two of 47 Magistrate Courts have armed security guards. “Courts tend sometimes to be fairly volatile places, so ensuring that those who work in the courts as well as those who use the courts remains one of our highest priorities,” Nakamura said after the hearing. “Police departments, sheriff’s departments, are themselves strapped for resources, or districts are so large they’re off patrolling other areas,” she continued. “And we do have some courthouses where there isn’t security neatly available for a variety of reasons, [or] their call button doesn’t go to the closest sheriff’s department but one that could be a hundred miles away.
Like a town dance or charity dinner, Judge Jeff Shannon’s visits to Peñasco were announced in black movable letters on a marquee in front of the community center. Every other Friday, Shannon or the other magistrate judge in Taos County, Ernest Ortega, would drive through the mountains from their courthouse about 45 minutes to the north and hold court in Peñasco, an unincorporated community of nearly 600 people in the shadow of Jicarita Peak. While hardly ceremonious, the community center was practical. The judges could use the copy machine for free, and the building was a gathering place. Locals sometimes played pool while the judges held court equipped with little more than a box of files and rubber stamps, handling traffic citations and other minor offenses, saving at least a few residents of southern Taos County a 60-mile round-trip drive into town along wending forest roads.
State lawmakers are debating whether to ask voters to change the Constitution and give judges more flexibility in the state’s longstanding cash bail system. Two proposals vie for their attention and if either wins the Legislature’s approval, it would go before voters in November. One would allow judges to deny bail to defendants deemed dangerous but let those who are not go free before trial if financial hardship is all that’s keeping them behind bars. The other addresses dangerous defendants but not individuals too poor to afford bail. Currently, the New Mexico Constitution allows nearly all criminal defendants the chance for freedom before trial, so long as they can afford it.