Plaintiffs claim judge disobeyed court order
Evidentiary hearing will be held Friday in Aztec to discuss Johnston's alleged actions
FARMINGTON — Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston claim she did not follow a court order by failing to provide all recordings and transcripts of private conversations made in the Aztec Magistrate Court building, and that she altered and edited recordings provided to attorneys.
The lawsuit was filed in the Eleventh Judicial District Court on Feb. 26, 2016. It alleges Johnston placed recording devices in more than a dozen areas around the courthouse, including judges' offices, restrooms and an attorney-client conference room, according to the lawsuit.
The New Mexico Supreme Court suspended Johnston on Dec. 1, 2015, after she ordered a court clerk jailed for contempt.
She is being investigated by the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission on allegations that she has violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct 15 times since she was appointed to the bench in August 2014.
Johnston, along with her sister, Michelle Constant, an evidence manager for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office; and husband Brian Johnston, a retired deputy for the sheriff's office, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.
District Judge Sarah Bakcus ruled Feb. 15 in favor of the plaintiffs' motion to hold an in-person evidentiary hearing Friday in Aztec to discuss Johnston's alleged actions, according to court documents.
Steven Murphy, the attorney representing the 13 plaintiffs on the lawsuit, said in a telephone interview that Johnston was destroying, hiding and editing the tapes of conversations recorded in parts of the courthouse, including the offices of judges Trudy Reed-Chase and Barry Sharer. Both judges are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Murphy added that he filed motions to find Johnston in civil and criminal contempt, and impose sanctions. Some of those sanctions could include issuing a default judgment against her in the case and also preclude her from raising any questions about the secret recordings in court.
Zachary Cormier, one of the attorneys representing Johnston, declined comment and referred questions about the lawsuit to attorney Sean Olivas. Olivas did not respond to requests for comment.
The defendants were ordered by the district court on April 19 to deliver "any and all recordings of communication and transcripts of recordings of communication which were obtained within the Aztec Magistrate Court," according to court documents.
A hard drive was delivered to the court that contained 46 files of recordings that amounted to about 44 hours of recordings, along with several transcripts. The release of the hard drive to the plaintiffs was ordered on Dec. 20.
Upon inspection of the hard drive, Murphy said he had concerns about the files provided.
"When we went through those files, it became clear she didn't provide them all," Murphy said.
In email messages between Murphy and Cormier included in the court paperwork, Murphy told Cormier the recordings were incomplete and asked him to produce all the recordings.
After an exchange of emails between the attorneys, Johnston shared access on Jan. 25 to a folder on the file hosting website Dropbox that contained supplemental materials, according to court documents.
Murphy told The Daily Times that more than 900 files were included in the Dropbox folder, but it became clear that some files were deleted a day later, including several video files.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.