Suspended magistrate judge seeks settlement of civil lawsuit
Court documents related to settlement will be filed this week
FARMINGTON — A proposed settlement of a civil lawsuit has been reached by 13 plaintiffs who accused suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston of placing recording devices inside the courthouse.
Steve Murphy, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said on Friday that he and the attorneys representing Johnston — Sean Olivas and Zachary Cormier — have reached an agreement to settle the lawsuit.
Olivas declined comment on the settlement.
Murphy said it was in his clients' best interest to resolve the matter and that they were ecstatic about the settlement.
The court documents related to the settlement will be filed this week, Murphy said.
The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 26, 2016 in the Eleventh Judicial District Court and accused Johnston of using recording devices in several areas around the courthouse, including the judges' offices and the staff restroom.
The amount of the proposed settlement is confidential, but Murphy said it was more than $200,000 and less than $300,000. The settlement paperwork also will be confidential for an unspecified amount of time.
Johnston is expected to pay about $125,000 of the amount, or more than half of the total settlement, with the state of New Mexico paying the remainder, according to Murphy.
In March, District Judge Sarah Backus ruled that Johnston had violated a court order to provide all transcripts and recordings of private conversations made in the Aztec Magistrate Court.
Johnston, along with her co-defendants, her husband Brian Johnston and her sister Michelle Constant, were ordered to pay $118,959.63 to cover Murphy's fees as part of Backus' March court order.
The attorneys reached an agreement about a month ago on the proposed settlement, but they have been finalizing the details of the agreement since then.
Murphy said the settlement is vindication for the plaintiffs, who he said have been "lambasted" by Johnston, who has been posting on Facebook that she has done nothing wrong.
"These people went through hell," Murphy said.
Some of the plaintiffs include magistrate judges Trudy Reed-Chase and Barry Sharer.
He added Johnston's behavior was reprehensible, and no judge should have committed those acts.
The proposed settlement will not say the defendants, including Johnston, admit to any wrongdoing, Murphy said.
In Backus' order in March in the case, it was stated that certain allegations in the lawsuit would be treated as facts.
Backus ruled Johnston used a device in the courthouse to listen to and record conversations of the plaintiffs and others without their consent between August 2014 and December 2015.
One stipulation of the settlement is Johnston could face a new cause of action to be brought against her if she distributes tapes of the recordings, allowing the plaintiffs to sue her again.
If the settlement is approved, Johnston still will have three court cases pending.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.