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Connie Johnston still faces criminal charges from state AG's office

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FARMINGTON — A district court judge has dismissed one of the criminal cases filed against former Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston, ruling in her favor that her right to a speedy trial was violated.

The single misdemeanor count of contempt of court Johnston was facing in the dismissed case stemmed from a civil lawsuit filed on Feb. 26, 2016, where she was accused of placing recording devices across the Aztec Magistrate Court building.

The devices allegedly captured audio in judges' offices and a staff restroom.

District Court Judge Melissa Kennelly of the Eighth Judicial District Court ruled in favor of Johnston's motion during a hearing on July 29 in Aztec District Court, according to court records.

Ray Twohig, Johnston's attorney, filed the motion on July 8.

Johnston's removal from the bench

Johnston was appointed to the Division I seat of the San Juan County Magistrate Court by former Gov. Susana Martinez on Aug. 15, 2014, according to The Daily Times archives.

She was suspended without pay on Feb. 10, 2016, by the New Mexico Supreme Court after she was charged with 15 counts of violating rules in the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.

The state Supreme Court removed her from the bench on Oct. 23, 2017 and she was permanently barred from holding a judicial office statewide.

Dismissed criminal case

Former District Court Judge Sarah Backus ruled that Johnston violated a court order by failing to provide all the transcripts and recordings of private conversations collected in the Aztec Magistrate Court building.

Judge Backus was presiding over this case until she retired earlier this year and Judge Kennelly took over the case.

The order signed by Judge Backus was filed on March 20, 2017, which also found the defendant in civil contempt. The case was later settled in July 2017.

Johnston's motion to dismiss stated it had been more than 27 months between when the first court documents were filed on March 17, 2017 and a proposed date of July 29 for a jury trial.

"It's been a long time and the law requires that you received a speedy trial in a criminal case and she didn't," Twohig told The Daily Times.

It also stated the burden was on the prosecution to justify the additional delay and that Johnston had "suffered emotional distress" as she struggled to find employment, according to court documents.

DA's office response

"The defendant was entitled to a speedy trial and it didn't happen in this case," according to San Juan County Chief Assistant District Attorney Dustin O'Brien.

The DA's office filed a response to Johnston's motion to dismiss on July 29, stating there was no violation since the jury trial was scheduled within 182 days of the arraignment.

The office also had issues with the Eighth Judicial District Court scheduling court dates, O'Brien said.

After the complaint was filed in March 2017, it took until Jan. 31 for an arraignment to take place.

Two motions for arraignment were filed by the prosecution in January and August 2018 and the court did not set a date until January of this year.

O'Brien stated the court not setting a date for arraignment was not in the prosecution's control and the DA's office does not plan on appealing the dismissal.

He also stated the DA's office was frustrated with the court not setting the case in a timely manner but Judge Kennelly's ruling is an accurate interpretation of the law.

Johnston's pending criminal case

The case of 13 misdemeanor charges filed by the New Mexico Attorney General's Office on July 28, 2017, is still pending in Aztec District Court.

Johnston is accused of several instances where she recorded telephone calls involving former Aztec Magistrate Court manager Lori Proctor that were likely made in a private, secure area of the courthouse, according to The Daily Times archives.

"I would say that these criminal prosecutions have been quite an ordeal for Connie Johnston, they have been very difficult for her," Twohig said. "She and I both I'm sure will be relieved when they are over."

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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