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Lawsuit aims to get secret courthouse recordings back
Aztec Magistrate Court judges, workers are plaintiffs
FARMINGTON – A civil lawsuit filed by Aztec Magistrate Court judges and employees against the state seeks to reclaim secret recordings made in the courthouse building by former Judge Connie Johnston.
Four plaintiffs are asking the Eleventh Judicial District Court to order the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission to return hundreds of hours of recordings the commission was given by Johnston that she made during a nine-month period on the bench, according to a copy of the complaint.
They also request that the commission cover attorneys' fees and costs but are not seeking monetary damages.
Randall Roybal, executive director and general counsel for the Judicial Standards Commission, declined comment due to pending litigation.
Steve Murphy, attorney for the plaintiffs, said since Johnston was removed from the bench, the commission has no jurisdiction over the recordings, and attempts to recover the tapes have been unsuccessful.
He added Roybal said he would give the tapes back but changed his mind.
"Why would the commission want those tapes?" Murphy said. "That is beyond me."
Magistrate Judges Barry Sharer and Trudy Reed-Chase along with court manager Lori Proctor and lead worker Amy Verhulst are the plaintiffs in the suit.
Johnston was removed from the bench as the judge for the Division I of the San Juan County Magistrate Court on Oct. 23 by the New Mexico Supreme Court. She was also permanently barred from holding a judicial office statewide.
The removal followed a Judicial Standards Commission petition filed on April 10 after it was determined Johnston had violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.
During a hearing on Feb. 10, 2016, attorneys for Johnston told the state Supreme Court she had "recorded 'hundreds of hours' of oral and telephonic communications within the Aztec Magistrate Court Building," according to the complaint.
Recordings devices were placed in the private offices of Sharer, Reed-Chase and Proctor and in the work space of Verhulst, according to court documents.
The complaint states Johnston disclosed the secret recordings to the Judicial Standards Commission, and the commission took possession of the recordings.
The recordings contained information about the plaintiffs, including intimate details of their personal life, and details about their relationships, families and marriages, along with protected medical information, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs were also part of a separate civil lawsuit was filed on Feb. 26, 2016, which accused Johnston of placing recording devices around the courthouse.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.