Magistrate court judge accused of misconduct

Noel Lyn Smith
Connie Johnston

FARMINGTON – Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston has been charged with 15 counts of violating the state's Code of Judicial Conduct in a petition filed last week by the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission and she has been suspended without pay by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court issued its order after a Wednesday hearing in Santa Fe. The temporary suspension is without pay and went into effect on Wednesday, according to court documents.

The Judicial Standards Commission filed the petition to the high court against Johnston on Feb. 4, alleging the violations and “willful misconduct in office,” according to court documents. The commission is an independent state agency authorized to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct against state, county and municipal judges and judicial candidates, according to its website.

Johnston faces allegations that include holding a court clerk in contempt of court, showing favoritism toward and trying to aid a plaintiff, changing the terms of a plea agreement after she had accepted it, failing to follow directions issued by Magistrate Judge Barry Sharer that instructed Johnston to have two court clerks in the courtroom at all times, exposing her undergarments to Sharer and asking if he wanted to search her, failing to perform judicial duties by leaving the courthouse without notice, performing judicial duties without the presence of a clerk in the courtroom, and participating in direct communication with plaintiffs without a defendant's attorney present.

According to court documents, Johnston denied any wrongdoing. She said Thursday she hopes the truth is exposed before the next hearing.

“I want the people to know there’s a lot more to this story, and I want it to come out,” she said.

Johnston was told to provide a written answer to the charges in the petition within 21 days from the time she was served. The petition states that returning Johnston to judicial service would "cause immediate and substantial risk of harm to the judiciary and staff of the San Juan County Magistrate Court, to law enforcement, to users of the court, and an erosion of public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary ..."

The high court ordered a reimbursement of pay withheld from Johnston between Jan. 6 to Feb. 10, stemming from a previous court order that suspended her without pay before the hearing. Johnston was suspended on Jan. 6 by the state Supreme Court after a petition was filed against her by the Judicial Standards Commission, which is based in Albuquerque.

Randy Roybal, executive director of the commission, previously told The Daily Times that the commission may conduct hearings or hold a trial to hear evidence of alleged wrongdoing, and it can then make recommendations to the state Supreme Court for actions in regard to the complaint.

This is the latest order by the state Supreme Court against Johnston, who was initially suspended in December after she ordered a court clerk to be jailed for contempt. In the December ruling, the high court reversed the order of contempt Johnston placed on court clerk Amy Verholst.

At the time, the state Supreme Court allowed Johnston to continue receiving her full salary and benefits, but she was not allowed to report for duty or carry out acts as a magistrate judge.

Johnston, a former detective with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, was appointed to the bench on Aug. 15, 2014, by Gov. Susana Martinez. She ran unopposed for the Division 1 magistrate judge seat and was elected to a full term in November 2014.

Attorney Steve Murphy, representing Verholst, said Thursday he has filed a notice of tort claim with the state’s Risk Management Division. The notice states litigation may follow if Johnston is not investigated for violating the privacy rights of the court staff, magistrate judges, attorneys and individuals facing criminal charges. The notice alleges Johnston placed audio and video recording devices throughout the magistrate court building and secretly recorded conversations.

Murphy said he filed the notice on behalf of eight court employees, and magistrate judges Barry Sharer and Trudy Chase.

“This is a violation of New Mexico state law and federal law,” Murphy said, adding the court employees and judges are requesting that Johnston resign immediately.

Murphy also filed a complaint in December on behalf of Verholst against Johnston with the Judicial Standards Commission.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.