Suspended judge ordered to pay attorney fees
Connie Johnston, other defendants told to pay nearly $120k
- The attorney's fees the defendants were ordered to pay were from April 5, 2016, to March 3, according to court documents.
- The New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission has filed a petition to remove Johnston from the bench.
- A hearing for a misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge is scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 24 in district court.
FARMINGTON — Suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston and co-defendants involved in a civil case regarding recordings made in the courthouse have been ordered to pay nearly $120,000 in attorney fees.
District Judge Sarah Backus ruled in March that Johnston had violated a court order by not providing all the transcripts of private conversations and recordings made in the Aztec Magistrate Court building. The judge also ruled Johnston had altered and/or deleted recordings, and she found Johnston in civil contempt.
As part of the court order issued on Monday, Johnston — along with her husband Brian Johnston and her sister Michelle Constant — were ordered to pay $118,959.63 to cover the attorney fees for the 13 plaintiffs.
Backus' order was issued the same day the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission filed a petition to remove Johnston from the bench and permanently ban her from holding a judicial office.
Attempts by The Daily Times to contact Brian Johnston and Constant's attorney James Whitley, and Connie Johnston's attorney Sean Olivas were unsuccessful.
Johnston has previously told The Daily Times she plans to fight the order, calling it incorrect.
Steve Murphy, the attorney representing the 13 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the fees and costs were related to when Johnston was ordered to turn over all the recordings on a computer hard drive, and deliver them to the court.
He said there was evidence Johnston was allegedly destroying audio tapes, and he filed a motion to preserve the evidence in April 2016, a case that has been heard in the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
The attorney fees the defendants were ordered to pay were from April 5, 2016, to March 3, according to court documents.
The civil lawsuit was filed on Feb. 26, 2016, in district court on allegations Johnston put recording devices in several areas in the courthouse, including an attorney-client conference room, judges' offices and restrooms.
During Backus' ruling last month, she ordered that certain allegations in the civil case be ruled as fact. The facts include Johnston using a recording device in the courthouse between August 2014, when she was appointed to the bench, and December 2015.
No evidence or testimony may be introduced to contradict or question those facts, according to the court documents.
Murphy said he plans to push for statutory damages that could reach $356,000 and attorney fees that could cost $100,000.
The next court date set for the civil case is a pretrial conference set for 1:15 p.m. on June 29 in district court. A four-day jury trial scheduled to start on July 24, according to court records.
When Backus found Connie Johnston in civil contempt, she instructed the San Juan County District Attorney's Office to file a criminal contempt-of-court charge. A hearing for the misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge is scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 24 in district court.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.