Magistrate judge suspended by NM Supreme Court

Steve Garrison
Connie Johnston

FARMINGTON — Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston was suspended Tuesday by the New Mexico Supreme Court after she ordered a court clerk be jailed for contempt.

Barry Massey, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Vigil suspended Johnston pending an investigation by the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission.

Johnston ordered that court clerk Amy Verholst be held in criminal contempt and jailed for 30 days because she refused to leave Johnston's courtroom on Tuesday morning, according to the order of contempt.

Massey said the clerk was in the courtroom to fulfill her job duties, as directed by presiding Magistrate Judge Barry Sharer. The contempt order was reversed by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Vigil said in a letter sent to Johnston on Tuesday that her suspension was "in the best interest of the administration of justice in San Juan County."

Johnston said Tuesday evening that magistrate court clerks have previously harassed her by filing frivolous complaints with both the AOC and the Judicial Standards Commission, and all of those complaints have been unfounded.

"This is not something that just started," Johnston said. "It's something that has been going on for 10 months. It escalated into this, unfortunately."

Johnston said she believed she was being targeted for harassment because she refused to order inappropriate sentences and was a witness to rule violations at the courthouse.

She declined to elaborate on those allegations.

Verholst's attorney, Steve Murphy, provided The Daily Times Johnston's order of contempt.

Murphy said Tuesday that Johnston had verbally threatened a court clerk at the Aztec Magistrate Court and exhibited other bizarre behavior. For their safety, Murphy said, the clerks insisted on working with Johnston in pairs. Murphy said the AOC authorized the clerks working in pairs.

Verholst refused to leave the courtroom on Tuesday because she did not want to leave the other clerk alone, according to Murphy, and Johnston ordered a state police officer to arrest her.

Murphy said he believed the dispute happened in open court. He said he intends to file his own complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission.

Johnston will continue to receive her full salary and benefits until further notice, according to Vigil's letter, but she is barred from carrying out any acts as a magistrate judge.

Johnston is also barred from returning to the Aztec Magistrate Court without prior authorization from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the letter states.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.