Monday, February 2, 2009

Metro Court in Dona Ana County? Why this is a bad idea

Rep. Joni Gutierrez has introduced a bill (HB 275) to create a metropolitan court immediately in Dona Ana County. Metro is a court of record, meaning that every word of the proceedings would be transcribed and preserved, and citizens are required to elect judges who are attorneys. Currently, magistrate is not a court of record, and citizens may vote for ordinary citizens, if they choose, for judges. While the notion of a metro court is superficially appealing--it suggests the quality of judges and proceedings will improve--there are powerful reasons to leave the current system untouched in Dona Ana County. Here's why (Valle del Sur: pay special attention):

1. Check out Metro Court in Bernalillo County: You want this?
The strongest reason to oppose metro court here is the uninspiring record of the only metro court in New Mexico, that of Bernalillo County. In a well documented, independent study written in 2000 by Zella Kay Soich, the author reached these conclusions about the Bernalillo Metro Court: "based on current attitudes and experiences...the public and lawyers are still critical of long waits, delays, expense (in time and money) and frustration." (Zella Kay Soich, "Improving Court Efficiency in New Mexico by Establishing a Metropolitan Court System: An Analysis and Assessment," Institute for Court Management, May 2000, p. 24).

After the imposition of the metro court in 1979 (then, as now, with lightning speed, and little discussion) case loads "immediately increased 25%," clogging up court operations and "causing the court to unravel." (Soich, p. 20) The Albuquerque Journal reported in 1980 "people are getting a horrible view of justice in America." (Soich, p. 20) The next year one lawyer said the court was "still a zoo," and still another year later the Albuquerque Tribune characterized the court as "chaos." (Soich, p. 21) In 2002 the Albuquerque Tribune wrote that "tardiness, rudeness, and a tendency to go easy on offenders are among the reasons a court watch group is recommending that half (7) of the (14) metro judges...should not be retained in this election." (Joline Gutierrez Krueger, ABQ Tribune, Oct. 25, 2002). In 2006 the Albuquerque Journal reported that for the previous decade, more than a third (about 2500 out of 7500) of DWI cases in Metro court were dismissed without being heard. (ABQ Journal, Jeff Procter, Dec. 7, 2006). If it doesn't work that well in Albuquerque after 30 years, is there any reason to believe it would work better in Las Cruces?

I challenge anyone to find evidence that would indicate the Metro Court is "better" than the magistrate court--the perception of the public, the quality of the service, etc. But it is a lot more expensive!

2. The Metro Court Triples the Cost of Magistrate Court
In 2005 the total budget for Dona Ana County's municipal and magistrate courts was $3,396,510 for ten judges and a staff of 62. The Dona Ana Court Consolidation Study Committee in November 2005 estimated a metro court for Dona Ana County would cost $11,009,906 for only 7 judges and a staff of 77: more staff, fewer judges--just the opposite of efficiency. The bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez now contemplates 8 judges (magistrate court too has been awarded another judge), but appropriates only $5 million. And it will cost a whole lot more than the 2005 figure of $11 million in the bloated prices of 2009. Costs in Metro court are way up: judges there are now earning $106,000, compared to magistrate judge salaries of less than $80,000. Where will the rest come from? With no guarantee of improving service, should taxpayers be shelling out three times more for this?

If you live outside Las Cruces, the idea of Metro Court is especially troubling.

3. Metro Court hurts the South and North Valleys of Dona Ana County. Today, magistrate courts operate in Anthony, Las Cruces, and Hatch. With metro court only Las Cruces has a court. People from Sunland Park, Santa Teresa, La Union, Chamberino, Anthony, Berino, Mesquite, Chaparral, San Miguel, La Mesa, Garfield, Hatch, Rodey, and Rincon would be forced to drive long distances to get to metro court. In fact, 54% of the population of Dona Ana County lives outside Las Cruces, so more than half the county--well over 100,000 people--would be negatively affected. Thirty years after getting a metro court in Albuquerque, citizens in the outlying areas are still complaining about the inconvenience. Dona Ana County is more than three times larger than Bernalillo County and is one of the poorest counties in the state. This represents a serious imposition on most citizens of the county.

Next: do you really want lawyers involved in this?

4. Metro court forces citizens to vote for attorneys for judges, eliminating the People's Court. Magistrate judges can be attorneys or ordinary citizens. Metro court forces you to vote for attorneys to judge petty cases. There are two major problems here. First, when charged with an offense you are much more likely in a Metro court to feel you have to get an attorney, adding significantly to the cost and quite possibly the time it takes to resolve an issue. Do you really want your petty cases decided by lawyers splitting hairs about legal details? Petty cases require common sense, not advanced degrees. Second, the concept behind magistrate court is that it is a People's Court, where common sense and local community standards determine the outcome. Attorneys are much less likely to understand local community standards, especially in places like the South Valley or Hatch, and they are, if anything, less likely to have the bottom line sense of justice of ordinary citizens.

5. Metro courts are courts of record: beware. Magistrate courts are not. Given the increasing sensitivity of governments to a person's background for a security clearance, do you really want the details of your daughter's Saturday night adventures preserved for public inspection and quotation forever? We aren't talking about felonies here, because these automatically go to District Court where they are, as they should be, recorded. But this is a petty court. It seems foolish to expose our misdemeanors to permanent, detailed inspection, when most citizens elsewhere do not.

Bottom Line

The current system of magistrate and municipal courts is well over half a century old. It was designed wisely, with the knowledge that, in contrast to higher courts, most people at one time or another will appear in magistrate or municipal court. It is in these courts that citizens actually meet face to face with our judicial system. Dispensation of justice should be in accord with local norms, by people known and well respected in the local community, elected by their peers. It should not have the faceless and stiff formality of higher courts where lawyers and legal arguments prevail. A People's Court prizes settling minor cases in a fair manner, given all circumstances, rather than by the outcome of a debate among expensive lawyers splitting hairs about the interpretation of obscure legal codes. In Bernalillo County, the only other place in New Mexico that has experimented with Metro Court, it is anything but clear after 3o years that the lawyer-based system is one iota better than the magistrate courts.

There is no pressure from any quarter for a switch to Metro Court, except from lawyers (who stand to gain from Metro Court) and the well-intentioned, but all-too-often narrowly focused League of Women Voters (whose members vastly under-represent Hispanic citizens here) for this change. Hispanics constitute 65% of the county: where are their voices?

Full Disclosure: My wife is a magistrate judge. Her term expires in 2010. I did not consult with her in writing this piece, and the passage or non-passage of this bill will not affect her tenure in office. I became a passionate supporter of the magistrate court system as a result of conversations about 25 years ago with Magistrate Judge Ruben Maynez, as many of my students will attest to, long before my wife became a judge.


South Valley citizen said...

I would like to see listed reasons why Rep. Joni Gutierrez wants to bring a metro court to Las Cruces. Does she see the county benefiting?

Anonymous said...

Rep. Joni Gutierrez is not in-touch with the citizens in Dona Ana County. The current judges are doing a great job, keep it the way it is now.