Attorney files complaint against Aztec judge

Steve Garrison
Connie Johnston

FARMINGTON – Attorney Steve Murphy said Wednesday he has filed a complaint against Aztec Magistrate Judge Connie Johnston with the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission.

Murphy filed the complaint on behalf of Amy Verholst, the court clerk Johnston attempted to jail for contempt on Dec. 1.

Johnston ordered that Verholst be held in criminal contempt and jailed for 30 days because she refused to leave Johnston's courtroom. The New Mexico Supreme Court immediately reversed Johnston's contempt order, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Vigil suspended Johnston pending an investigation.

Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Barry Massey previously said Verholst was in the courtroom to fulfill her job duties, as directed by presiding Magistrate Judge Barry Sharer.

Murphy said Johnston had verbally threatened a court clerk, and the clerks had permission to work in pairs around Johnston. Verholst refused to leave the courtroom because she did not want to leave the other clerk alone, according to Murphy.

Johnston said Wednesday she had received notice from the Judicial Standards Commission that a complaint had been filed against her. She said she has not retained an attorney, but she will respond to the allegations.

"I hate that all this is happening," Johnston said. "But we will work through it."

Johnston previously said the clerks had harassed her through the filing of complaints.

Murphy said Wednesday he filed Verholst's complaint with the commission on Dec. 11.

Randy Roybal, executive director of the commission, said Tuesday the New Mexico Constitution prohibits him from discussing the complaint or even acknowledging it had been filed with the commission.

"I could not speak to that at all," he said. "Everything we do is confidential."

Murphy also said he could not discuss the specific allegations made in the complaint, but claimed Johnston's decision to hold Verholst in contempt was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.

"Her actions against the court clerk were premeditated," Murphy said.

Roybal said the 13-member commission is empowered by the state Constitution to investigate complaints against state, county and municipal judges. Roybal said the commission may conduct hearings or hold a trial to hear evidence of alleged wrongdoing.

The commission can then make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court on what action, if any, to take regarding the complaint, including the possible removal or retirement of the judge, according to Roybal. He said the commission does its best to review complaints in a timely manner, but there is no limit to how long the investigation can take.

Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in an email James Mosberger has been appointed a judge pro tempore at the Aztec Magistrate Court. Mosberger retired in June as magistrate judge at the Farmington Magistrate Court.

"AOC has also worked to have other active and retired Magistrates serving as judges in the Aztec court," Pepin said in an email. "It remains a challenge to provide adequate coverage by judges to keep up with the court's active caseload."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.