The local, well intentioned League of Women Voters (largely composed of Anglo women from Las Cruces) has been beating on the drum for a couple of years now to shift the current county system, which separates municipal and county courts, to a single Metro court system similar to the one Albuquerque has had for nearly a third of a century. Three fundamental distinctions between the two systems are (1) the Metro Court System requires judges to be attorneys; (2) Metro Courts are "of record," meaning every word of the proceedings are available for public inspection forever; (3) The Metro system greatly increases costs to taxpayers, largely due to higher salaries for judges and the requirement all proceedings must be recorded. The League has wanted to force citizens to merge both systems into one, forcing all proceedings to be recorded and forcing citizens to pick lawyers to judge their small offenses.
Fortunately for voters (especially the largely Hispanic population living in the South Valley and North from Las Cruces to Garfield) Representative Andy Núñez was able this year to pass legislation requiring a population of 250,000 in a county (instead of 200,000) to trigger an automatic requirement for the county to switch to a Metro Court system. We hereby award Rep. Núñez with our 2010 Award for Democratic Values, and we hope he will spearhead a movement to do away with the Metro Court system altogether in New Mexico in future years. We know enough now about the Metro Court System to know we don't want to be forced into adopting it ten years from now when the census shows us to be at the 250,000 mark.
Anyone who thinks Dona Ana County (or any other county) should shift to Metro court should read the devastating report written a few years ago by Zella Kay Soich in May 2000 for the Institute for Court Management, titled, "Improving Court Efficiency in New Mexico By Establishing a Metropolitan Court System: An Analysis and Assessment." I will make it available here in pdf format in a day or two.
Quotes from that report: (1) "based on current attitudes and experiences...the public and lawyers are still critical of long waits, delays, expense (in time and money) and frustration." (2) (quoting the Albuquerque Journal "people are getting a horrible view of justice in America..." and the next year one lawyer said the Metro System was (again quoting the Journal) "still a zoo." Still one year later the Albuquerque Tribune characterized the MCS as "chaos." (Soich Report, page 20.)
Since then little has changed, and every year or two a new scandal emerges, whether the corruption scandal which finally sent Sen. Manny Aragon to jail, or the judge who, when confronting a confessed wife beater asked, "did she have it coming?" or any one of a number of recent indiscretions committed by Metro judges, each of which has a law degree. Imitating the Metro Court System of Bernalillo County is an invitation to permanent disaster, and Núñez is to be commended for recognizing that fact and acting on it successfully.
The League of Women Voters means well. They are particularly concerned, with good reason, about the Municipal Court system in Las Cruces, which has been dysfunctional for a number of years. The court is very poorly managed, with long wait lines, inattentive service, arbitrary hours, and a give-a-damn attitude toward the public. Many municipal police, in fact, refuse to take their citations there, preferring to exercise their option to go to Magistrate Court instead, which then overburdens the magistrate system. An outstanding former magistrate judge, Patrick J. Curran, recently wrote an excellent letter to the editor in the Sun News explaining the problem. One of his solutions is simply for the city to drop the requirement that municipal judges should be lawyers.
The fact is, the City of Las Cruces has put up with this dysfunctional system for many years, and the mayor and city council could fix the system with a stroke of the pen, outlining new requirements for judges, and regulating the functioning of the court for the convenience of the tax paying public. The city should not be allowed to make excuses any longer. For years the city has hoped in vain that a highly politicized Supreme Court in Santa Fe (through its managerial wing, the Administrative Office of the Courts) would do something. But for years the AOC has passed the buck back to the city, asking the city to take action. City elections are taking place next February: this should be a serious issue on the agenda for city council and mayor. The League of Women Voters in Las Cruces should now change it's target from Metro Court, a battle they have lost, to one they can win: reform the municipal court by passing new regulations and dropping the requirement that judges there must be lawyers.
Magistrate Court is and has been (since it converted from the old, corrupt Justice of the Peace system) called "The people's court," for good reasons, since most citizens will never go before a district court, and since most citizens see our judicial system up close only in magistrate court. Disposition of justice for lesser offenses simply requires good common sense, disciplined through solid training, by ordinary citizens elected because they have earned respect, not because they have a degree. Requiring judges to be lawyers would severely cut down on the number of eligible persons, bring money and politics into the campaign, and in this county probably upset the currently representative ethnic balance (3 Hispanos, 2 Anglos) among magistrate judges--without a shred of evidence that lawyers are as good as ordinary citizens in dispensing low-level justice. Do you really want a court of record, where every word of testimony about your teenager's Saturday night indiscretion is recorded and available to all for all posterity? Do you really want an overpaid lawyer to look down at you and cite some obscure, hair-splitting legal principal when s/he declares you guilty even though you honestly think you're not? Do you really want to double the cost taxpayers pay for administering these courts when evidence suggests they aren't as responsive or efficient as the magistrate courts?
Saludos to Representative Andy Núñez: Our 2010 Award goes to you!
Full Disclusure: My wife is a magistrate judge. I formed my ideas about the People's Court, however, long before my wife became Magistrate Judge, when then-Magistrate Judge Ruben Maynez spoke to my class on New Mexico politics at NMSU.