Saturday, July 15, 2006
The Saga of Judge Fran Gallegos
"I'm incompetent, but I'm not a crook.''.....Fran Gallegos
That has to be the quote of the year.
This was former Judge Fran Gallegos comment as charges against her were dismissed by Judge Michael Vigil. Judge Vigil remarked that she just didn't know any better and there was no criminal intent in her changing official court documents and claiming jail time and maximum sentences for those who were found not guilty or whose charges had been dismissed.
One thing I know we will see come out of this is the use of Fran as someone to point fingers at and say "see judges need to be lawyers". I truly feel that at the lowest levels the judges do not need to be lawyers. They need to have common sense and need to be professional. Across New Mexico there are just as many lawyer judges getting arrested or facing disciplinary actions by the Judicial Standards board as there are non lawyers.
In Santa Fe we have four Magistrate Judges, a Municipal Judge,and a Probate Judge who all do not require nor have they historically held Law Degrees. I have dealt with many of these Judges as well as the District Judges which must hold Law Degrees. I have seen good and bad judges with and without those degrees. I know that the New Mexican which has long advocated Law Degrees for lower court judges will come out with an editorial pointing at Fran Gallegos as proof that a Law Degree is needed as a requirement probably in the next few days.
The warning signs were there with Fran years ago, it is too bad the voters did not pay attention. I also feel there should have been some culpability in the criminal charges against Fran. I can not believe that she did not know better after all her years in office that you can not have a criminal sentence for someone who is found not guilty or who's case is dismissed.
Now the disclaimer: I have thought about running for Magistrate Judge in Santa Fe County in 2010. I have by no means made up my mind but I am term limited as Sheriff and while for the next four years I am going to just work hard and concentrate on the Sheriff's job, when that is over I will have to seriously look at what I do next. I am not nor will I probrably be a lawyer. I am working on completing a Criminal Justice Degree. I truly feel that "the Peoples court" really is that, " a true peoples court". It is very seldom and very foolish that someone go to District Court or higher without an attorney. You will get little help and little in the way of easy to fill out forms and pleadings to assist you in filing your case.
In Magistrate and Municipal Court on the other hand it is easy and ok, to handle your own case. Even when charged with a traffic crime or misdemeanors crime chances are very, very likely you will not even be up against an Assistant District Attorney, The officer or deputy will present his or her case and you will present yours and the Judge will make a determination.
Lawyers tend to complicate things and at this level and with the exception of DWI these matters can be handled in a more down to earth and Peoples court manner. The Magistrate and Municipal Court is not a "court of record". This allows the Judge to have a broader discretion when deciding cases. Cases are heard according to "common law". In Courts of Record, (District Court and Higher Courts), Cases are heard according to "Statutory Law" which is much more stringent and requires Judges much less discretion in how they handle the cases. This in itself is one of the primary basis for having a much more relaxed and informal atmosphere at lower level courts. The Judges and more importantly the courts have much more latitude in providing easy to use forms, in giving directions on how to file without giving legal advice. The Judges in theory at least are able to hear both sides cases on a more human level with out all the legal mumbo jumbo that costs defendants so much money for the attorneys.
I give DWI as an exception because the consequences have become so serious and the penalty's and stigma so harsh that attorneys almost always get involved in this day and age. I do feel that the state should provide more education and continuing education to Magistrates and other non-lawyer judges. I know for a fact that besides the mandatory hours the state does require, that many of our own Magistrates attend training, conferences and classes through organizations such as the National Judicial College that is far in excess of the minimum standards required by the state. So in concluding let me just say that I do not believe we should elevate this level of the court, (magistrates, municipal, probate and the like) to a level which will make it such that going to this court will require an attorney, both for the prosecution (the officers) and the defendants. This will turn a $60, traffic ticket into a thousand dollar expense. Also Magistrates currently make about Sixty Thousand a year, what kind of attorneys will we get for that price? If we raise the salaries to a level which will attract these attorneys then how will the State come up with the additional funds? Easy, raise the court fees and cost of the citations. This would probrably end up at least doubling these fees and fines.