Candidate Q&A: Court Appeals

The following are Q&As with the candidates for the New Mexico Court of Appeals — Republican Stephen French and Democrat Julie Vargas. Both candidates were asked the same questions.

Stephen French
Court of Appeals Judge Stephen French said he has worked over 2,000 cases in court on both the state and federal level. French said he considers “get(ting) it right” his top priority in his career. He said his experience ranges from being a former prosecutor and former criminal defense attorney, as well as civil rights work, something he said was “one of the most important things in the last 17 years.” He has defended a variety of public institutions including schools, cities, counties and universities.
Are there any changes you feel need to be made in regard to how the court of appeals operates? If so, what are those changes and what would you do to spur them?
You know, I’ve been only on the court for seven and a half months now, and I was asked that question by a group about where I was three or four months in. No, not really. At that time, I didn’t know much about the processes. Now that I have a little bit of experience operating in the Court of Appeals, is we are already working on different rules to make our court more efficient partially in regard to CYFD (Department of Children Youth and Families) cases in termination of parental right cases (and) early bench decisions — get an opinion out and have those hearings.
The other example is our budget is really hurting and we have a lot of unfilled positions, partially in the pre-hearing division and paralegals, and it’s backing our work up. Now that’s a state-wide problem. To help get funding for the Court of Appeals so we can be fully staffed and serve the people of New Mexico. On a larger note, it is my campaign theme, if you will, is we need to get politics out of judicial races. That is a political question that really goes to the legislature. As a judge, I really don’t like to comment on political questions. It is affecting the court and hopefully we can get things worked out there. All agencies, all parts of government are affected right now with the budget shortfall with the lack of money coming in.
What will be your top five priorities if elected?
Well, I don’t know that I have five. One is to try to analyze all the cases, criminal and civil cases, and try to come to a fair result. I guess the most important part in my judicial philosophy is to get it right. You know, these are tough matters. About 75 percent of our cases are criminal cases. I’m a former prosecutor and former criminal defense attorney. You really need to, when you are talking about taking someone’s liberty and freedom, you need to follow the constitution of the United States, follow the State Constitution in particular, and make sure the jury instructions are fair.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals is not a policy-making court. Our job is to follow the suggestions of the legislature, statutes and the New Mexico constitution and see to it that whoever — the government or the individual person in charge or convicted — that the entire process that went on with the district court went on the Court of Appeals. We have a great group of judges here and we try to speed up the process as much as we can and that is very difficult. It’s difficult to institute changes and policy and what not. When you work with a group of experienced collegial judges, it makes it a lot easier. Each case has a panel of three judges.
All of us are trying to work on getting our positions out. I’ve done over 80 appeals in the tenth circuit and 30 appeals in the state, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court before taking the seat. I have quite a bit of experience in appellant law so that’s been extremely helpful. I have an awful lot of experience trying cases. Having 35 years of title experience is very helpful.
Your website says you are geared toward helping law enforcement, corrections and schools. How do you plan to do this?
I just have experience doing that. I’m a former prosecutor, former criminal defense attorney. I went on to federal court. I would regularly volunteer to take the crimes cases out of “Indian country.” That’s how it’s defined in the statute. I did a lot of criminal defense and state court, volunteered to defend death penalty cases and save my client’s life. I’d go on to plain and civil rights work, civil rights defense work (and I’ve) represented every law enforcement. That means that I was representing the people of the state of New Mexico. Those institutions don’t function unless people run. Broad bases. Divorce work. I brought basic experience to the bench. I’ve done both sides of the law.
One of the most important things is in the last 17 years, I was a mediator on civil rights cases, medical negligence and tort claims cases. I would consider the ultimate professional compliment that the people I was litigating cases against for all these years, if I wasn’t on their cases, they would hire me to mediate their cases against other defense lawyers in the mediation process. I had a very active mediation business. I defended public schools all over the state, universities, cities, counties, the corrections department. I defended a different electric county co-op, any public entity I defended those for a long time. Over 2,000 cases, both in state and federal court.


Julie Vargas
In her experience as a law professional, Julie Vargas said she will bring in 23 years of experience working with small businesses and real estate outlets into the Court of Appeals. Vargas said she considers ethics in law a priority, using her experience serving on the Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court, the NM State Bar Board of Bar Commissioners and chairing the New Mexico State Bar’s Ethics Advisory Committee to ensure lawyers are properly trained to hold up the highest ethical standards. Vargas said she also hopes to expand the availability of lawyers to clients unfamiliar with the legal process and unable to afford services.
Are there any changes you feel need to be made in regard to how the court of appeals operates? If so, what are those changes and what would you do to spur them?
They’re not systematic changes, but they are needed changes. The Court of Appeals is not very technologically advanced. They don’t have computer services that some of the other courts have. You can’t file things electronically, (and documents are) not distributed electronically. A lot of paper files. I think it slows down some of the things they need to do. It also makes the information coming into and out of the Court of Appeals less acceptable to the public. I would fund the courts the way they need to be funded, then I would update the computer system for electronic access in a more expeditious fashion. That would be the first thing that I would do.
(Another issue is) in the last probably 10 years, there are lots of people who are going to court without lawyers probably because they can’t afford them. That’s problematic for a number of reasons. They don’t know how to maneuver their way through and get things done. I would like to see people having greater access to lawyers even if it were for just a short period so that lawyers could tell them. “Yes, this is something that should be brought to the court” or “No, this is something that won’t be successful.” Give them a little bit of guidance on how they can get it through the court system. It also hurts the people who are paying for lawyers $200 or $300 an hour and their cases get slowed down, because there are people who are unable to afford lawyers.
A lot of times I talk about a hearing I went to for one of my clients. It was a trailing docket. The court set several hearings at the same time. The court will hear them one after the other — five-minute hearings or 10-minute hearings. The first hit on the docket was a foreclosure. He couldn’t afford a lawyer and was representing himself. The court was trying to explain to him what the process was. He didn’t really understand the system. A hearing that should have taken about five minutes took about 35 minutes. You can see how that slows down the system when the judge has several of those a day. It would be nice if someone like that person was able to consult with a lawyer and consult with them and explain the system and tell them how it was going to work.
Your website says you are geared toward helping New Mexico businesses and corporations. How do you plan to do this?
That’s what I do now as a lawyer. Many of my clients are New Mexico businesses. I do a lot of real estate and business law. Clients are contractors, small real estate purchasers and sellers. As a member of the court it’s not my job to help them. It’s my job to apply the law. But my experience has been helping New Mexico small businesses. When I come in and on the court and have the opportunity to apply the law, the people who come in from me should know that my experience has been dealing with small businesses so I know that they’re concerns are because that’s what I’ve been doing the last 23 years. In addition to practicing I actually do a lot of work with the state bar of New Mexico.
A lot of focus has been on lawyer ethics. I think it’s really important that when people hire a lawyer, they know it’s someone who’s going to stand up for them. I’ve spent a lot of personal time helping other lawyers who have ethical dilemmas. Making sure that lawyers that are not doing what they are supposed to do no longer be a member of our bar or be suspended. I chair the state bar ethics advisory committee. If you have an ethical problem because you don’t know what to do with money you received with a client or learned information or you don’t know whether to disclose it or not, we will issue replies to them letting them know what the proper course of action is.
I’m also a member of the disciplinary board. Disciplinary complaints against lawyers. It sets up the appellant body of the disciplinary procedure. Prosecute a claim against the lawyer and ask the lawyer to be reprimanded, suspended or even disbarred. I’ve been doing that for the past five or six years as a member of that committee making recommendations to the supreme court. It’s really important that we take care of them or no one is going to trust us. I think it’s really important for people who hire lawyers to trust him or her.
What will be your top five priorities if elected?
Obviously I’ve told you how important ethics and trust are in the judicial system, (so) whatever I could do to encourage that. Access to justice issues, whatever we could to do help people get the services they need. I’m also a member of the board of bar commissioners, the board of directors. As a member of the board, I’ve been on this hearing committee that is implementing this new program as a part of the state bar that is looking at how to train new lawyers in a way they can offer legal services to clients at a more affordable rate for a more discrete part of a case. To offer some limited services as opposed to taking in an entire case.
I started a new program that is called Entrepreneurs and Community Lawyers to train brand new lawyers who want to be still practitioners who want to run a business. It’s also intended to encourage these lawyers to offer services to underserved communities. In New Mexico, you can get legal services if you are hovering around the poverty level. If you’re in-between these two places it’s really hard to get legal services. Most people can’t afford to pay someone $300 an hour. Encourage lawyers to look at just giving small pieces of legal services but maybe consulting with the client on what the process is and maybe just doing small discrete areas. Work their way through the judicial system on their own in certain places.
Access to justice is another issue. I’d love to get the Court of Appeals computerized. It’s more of a personal thing. It’s really important to me that people get decisions as timely as possible. When you’re involved with a lawsuit, it takes a really long time. Aspects of your life are put on hold. Just my personal goal would be to make sure I handled my cases as expeditiously as possible. That’s another thing that is really important to me.
One of the reasons that I think I can really add something to this court is the fact that currently there isn’t really anyone on the court who spent their career practicing business, commercial, real estate type law. Lots of people who focused on other areas but no business type stuff. I could really bring something to this court, experienced 23 years, and I look forward to doing that and adding that to the court.


— Compiled by Staff Writer Kurt Munz-Raper

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