Petition filed to remove suspended judge
The New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court to remove suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston from office.
FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission has filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court to remove suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston from her judicial office and permanently bar her from holding a judicial office statewide.
The petition filed today follows a Dec. 5 hearing and states that the eight commissioners determined based on "clear and convincing evidence" that Johnston violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct eight times, according to a copy of the petition.
Johnston was suspended without pay and initially charged with 15 counts of violating the state's judicial conduct code by the New Mexico Supreme Court after a Feb. 10, 2016, hearing.
That hearing was scheduled following a petition filed by the Judicial Standards Commission on Feb. 4, 2016, that alleged "willful misconduct in office," according to the Daily Times archives.
Numerous attempts Monday to reach Johnston by phone for comment were unsuccessful.
Gary Mitchell, Johnston's Ruidoso-based attorney, declined comment.
Randall Roybal, executive director and general counsel for the Judicial Standards Commission, said removing a magistrate judge is the most extreme sanction the state Supreme Court can issue.
He added that removing a judge from office is a "rare" recommendation.
The last magistrate judge to be removed from office by the state Supreme Court was Rio Arriba Magistrate Judge Thomas Rodella in 2008.
The petition was filed after the Dec. 5 merits hearing held by the commission in its Albuquerque offices.
The commissioners cited specific factors when making the recommendation to remove Johnston from office and bar her from holding judicial office in New Mexico.
"All of the commissioners present for the hearing voted in favor of finding that these charges were proved by clear and convincing evidence," the petition states regard the violations of state judicial code.
In the petition, the commissioners wrote that they believe Johnston's actions "did substantial harm to the operation and public perception of the Aztec Magistrate Court."
The petition continued by stating Johnston "gravely abused the awesome judicial power of contempt both in her purpose and her abusive procedure."
The state Supreme Court initially suspended Johnston with pay in December 2015 after she ordered court clerk Amy Verholst be jailed for contempt. The order of contempt was later reversed by the high court.
The actions related to the contempt order are cited by the commissioners several times.
Johnston held Verholst "in contempt for performing her clerical duties as Ms. Verholst had been instructed to do by Presiding Judge Barry Sharer and Court Manager Lori Proctor," according to court documents.
The petition also states Johnston undermined Judge Sharer's authority several times by ordering court clerks out of her courtroom despite having two court clerks assigned to her by Sharer, according to court documents.
Steve Murphy, the attorney who filed a complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission on behalf of Verholst, said the petition has been a long time coming and was happy Johnston will have a court date with the state Supreme Court.
He said Johnston violated the trust of court clerks in the Aztec Magistrate Court and the residents of San Juan County.
Instances of Johnston allegedly contacting plaintiffs regarding court cases were cited in the petition.
In one case, Johnston allegedly apologized to a civil plaintiff regarding a mistake she made in the judgement of the plaintiff's case, stating she would do better next time.
She was also cited for allegedly calling the plaintiff in a civil case, giving the plaintiff information regarding an appeal and advising the plaintiff to obtain counsel.
Commissioners also cited Johnston for allegedly refusing to accept the dismissal of charges by a San Juan County assistant district attorney in a criminal case.
It was stated in the petition that Johnston "would not accept the dismissal because the defendant needed to be supervised for something."
Roybal said it will be up to the state Supreme Court to schedule a hearing regarding the petition to suspend Johnston.
In a separate civil lawsuit, a judge had recently ruled Johnston violated a court order by not providing all transcripts and recordings of private conversations captured in the Aztec Magistrate Court building.
Johnston previously told the Daily Times she will fight the court order, and said it was incorrect.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.