State Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on Thursday the state’s justice system, which her predecessor described in 2017 as a patient on life support, is beginning to breathe on its own. Nakamura said funding appropriated over the past two years means the judicial branch can now pay Magistrate Court rents without worry and no longer loses employees to better paying jobs to discount retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target. And, she said, a new jury management system has resulted in savings that mean jurors are paid in a timely fashion for the first time in eight years. “Are our courts thriving?” Nakamura said.
Decades worth of warnings about the danger of underfunding public defenders finally came to a climax last month, when a district court judge held Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur in contempt of court after Baur, the agency head, said he could not ethically take a handful of cases in rural New Mexico. New Mexico’s continued weak budget suggests that the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender is unlikely to receive more resources any time soon. But according to leading criminal defense attorneys, public defenders were never a priority in the state budget even during better economic times. The recent flashpoint was when Baur showed up to the 5th Judicial District Court in Lovington to represent Michelle Sosa. Sosa was on probation for a previous aggravated battery conviction and tested positive for methamphetamines.
Years of budget cuts to the state’s Offices of the Public Defender came to a head this week in a rural town in southeast New Mexico. A judge found New Mexico’s lead public defender in contempt of court earlier this week after his office failed to appear in five cases in a Lovington district court. District Court Judge Gary Clingman found Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur in contempt on Monday and issued a $5,000 fine after Baur failed to represent clients in five different criminal cases. Related: Citing ‘resistance’ top Public Defender resigns
The notices of non-appearance, Baur said, stem from a strained public defender’s office. “We really cannot effectively represent people,” Baur told NM Political Report.
New Mexico’s Chief Public Defender announced his resignation earlier this week. Jorge Alvarado held the position since 2013 when he was hired to oversee the newly structured state entity under a governing commission instead of as an agency under the governor. In a letter announcing his resignation, for Alvarado alluded to issues of oversight for the office and wrote that he no longer felt that he could effectively run the office. “I have decided to resign as I believe things have gotten to the point that I can no longer be effective in helping to achieve the ultimate goal,” Alvarado wrote. “There is just too much resistance and unreasonable expectations with too many people wanting to run the office to be effective and orderly in the continued transition and growth of this organization.”
The newly-formed Public Defender Commission appointed Alvarado as Chief Public Defender in 2013.
In a report to an interim legislative committee, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender told lawmakers the situation for public defenders in the state is getting better, but that they still need more funding. Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado told the Legislative Finance Committee on Friday that his office is on its way to filling 33 staff attorney positions this year, but that contract counsel is still a problem. In his presentation, Alvarado said his office is struggling to maintain an adequate amount of contract attorneys to defend cases in rural parts of the state. He added that even with a standard of having “a heartbeat and a bar card” for contract attorneys, low flat rates for contracts makes it hard to attract lawyers. The Law Offices of the Public Defender has long advocated for hourly rates over flat fees in order to properly defend clients in court.