Suspended judge found in contempt of court
Connie Johnston calls court order incorrect, pledges to fight it
- Johnston was suspended by the New Mexico Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2015, for ordering a court clerk jailed for contempt.
- Plaintiffs in the case testified during a hearing that they listened to audio recordings that were not provided to the court.
- There were several sanctions issued against Johnston and defendants in the case by the court order.
FARMINGTON — A judge has ruled that suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston violated a court order by failing to provide all recordings and transcripts of private conversations captured in the Aztec Magistrate Court building, and that Johnston deleted and/or altered those recordings.
Johnston said the order is incorrect, and she plans to fight it.
District Judge Sarah Backus signed the order on Monday that also found Johnston in civil contempt.
The order directed the San Juan County District Attorney's Office to prosecute Johnston on a criminal contempt-of-court charge. That charge was filed Monday in district court.
The actions were part of a civil lawsuit filed on Feb. 26, 2016, in the Eleventh Judicial District Court. The lawsuit alleges that Johnston placed recording devices in several areas around the courthouse, including the staff restroom and judges' offices, according to court documents.
Johnston said in a telephone interview today that she plans to file an appeal or a motion for the judge to reconsider the order. She also said she did not delete any evidence that was stored in a Dropbox folder.
Johnston alleged that the plaintiffs' attorney, Steve Murphy, or someone that used his account had deleted files from the Dropbox folder.
"The tapes are my defense," Johnston said. "Why would I delete them?"
Murphy, the attorney representing the 13 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Johnston's claim was false.
Johnston shared access on Jan. 25 to a Dropbox folder that contained additional materials, according to court documents. The folder was shared after Murphy exchanged emails with Johnston's attorneys, stating all the evidence was not included in a hard drive Johnston gave to the court.
Murphy told The Daily Times in February some of the files were deleted a day later, including several video files.
In an earlier interview today, he said it was good day for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit after the order was signed. Murphy added it was a sad day for the judicial system, expressing his disbelief that Johnston seemed to think she was above the law.
The order was the result of a March 3 evidentiary hearing in Aztec district court.
Included in the order were sanctions against Johnston and other defendants in the lawsuit, including Johnston's sister and husband.
As part of the sanctions, specific allegations in the lawsuit are now to be treated as facts, according to court documents. It has been ruled a fact that Johnston used a device in the courthouse building to listen to and record conversations of the plaintiffs and other people without their consent, and that the recordings were made between August 2014, when she was appointed to the bench, and December 2015.
The order also states it is fact that Johnston transcribed the recordings and intentionally altered and/or deleted recordings.
The defendants are also not allowed to introduce evidence or testimony regarding the recordings, according to the sanctions.
The defendants were ordered to pay the attorneys' fees and costs for the plaintiffs that were incurred between April 5, 2016, and March 3, 2017, according to court documents.
A hearing is set for 9 a.m. on May 24 in district court for the misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge. If found guilty, Johnston could face a fine or jail time, according to court documents.
Johnston was suspended by the New Mexico Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2015, for ordering a court clerk jailed for contempt. The New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission is also investigating allegations that she has violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.
Johnston believes the information about the state Judicial Standards Commission investigation was leaked to try and force her to resign.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.