State Supreme Court censures district judge
April 17, 2019
The New Mexico Supreme Court publicly censured a 10th Judicial District judge in Tucumcari after ruling he violated the Code of Judicial Conduct during a private meeting last year with Quay County’s manager.
Judge Albert J. Mitchell Jr. was accused of saying he would ask the governor to veto capital-outlay funds due to the county because of a dispute over court-security funding, according to a document unsealed April 8 by the high court.
Mitchell, who serves Quay, De Baca and Harding counties, denied he engaged in “willful misconduct regarding political influence” but did not contest several allegations from a private meeting with Quay County Manager Richard Primrose.
In the high court’s document, Mitchell acknowledged he met privately with Primrose on Jan. 8, 2018, after a county commission meeting and “voiced his displeasure” with the commission vote concerning courthouse security.
Primrose also filed an affidavit Jan. 23, 2018, about his private meeting with Mitchell. Warren Frost, the county’s attorney, provided the Quay County Sun a copy of the document.
According to Primrose’s account in the affidavit, Mitchell said he believed the Quay County Courthouse needed better security.
“Judge Mitchell’s primary request has been for Quay County to permanently close its main entrance and direct all people who have business with the county through the north side entrance that is handicapped accessible,” Primrose wrote. “He has further requested that the county pay for a full time guard to be stationed at that door and that all people entering the Quay County Courthouse go through a metal detector.”
Primrose stated the county commission voted Jan. 8 to deny Mitchell’s requests after hearing objections from other elected officials.
According to the high court’s ruling, Mitchell did not contest these allegations that arose from the Primrose meeting:
• Mitchell made statements “indicating he had the governor’s ear” — Susana Martinez at the time — “and could call on her to line-item veto capital outlay funds for Quay County” if court-security measures weren’t met.
Primrose wrote in his affidavit Mitchell was “clearly irate” about the commission’s decision and “he was going to contact the Governor and that she would draw a line through anything that came across her desk that had anything to do with Quay County, thereby causing the County substantial damage financially and otherwise.”
According to Primrose, if the county wanted to keep Mitchell from contacting the governor, it should either reverse the commission decision or provide three more full-time sheriff’s deputies to monitor the stairwells and elevator going up to the second-floor district court.
Mitchell also suggested renting his old law office in Tucumcari for $500 a month and moving County Clerk Ellen White’s operations there. “He suggested this because the County Clerk has been vocal in her opposition to closing the Courthouse and requiring everybody to go through detectors per Judge Mitchell’s request,” Primrose wrote.
Mitchell also suggested building a new judicial building or moving all other county offices out of the courthouse into another building, Primrose stated in the affidavit.
• Mitchell also said if his requests weren’t met, “a prominent legislator could take the Quay County court’s security measures into his own hands” and pass a court-security law, the high court’s ruling stated.
• Mitchell said if several options for court security were implemented, he would not notify Gov. Martinez about Quay County’s failure to implement the measures.
“The manner in which Respondent presented the options to the County Manager on January 8, 2018, was suggestive of a threat and the possibility of putting Quay County in jeopardy of not receiving capital outlay funds,” the high court stated about the third allegation.
The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Mitchell “knew or should have known his actions clearly were a failure to be patient, dignified and courteous,” and his statements “created an appearance of impropriety and could be perceived as an abuse of the prestige of judicial office, which reflects negatively upon the independence, integrity, and impartiality of, and respect for, the judiciary.”
“I do not believe that it is appropriate for Judge Mitchell to use his judicial position or his alleged clout with the Governor or the legislature to try to coerce Quay County into taking actions that are not in our citizen’s best interest and that will personally benefit him financially,” Primrose concluded in his affidavit.
The high court stated Mitchell’s public censure would be published in the New Mexico Bar Bulletin. A censure is a form of public discipline that doesn’t carry additional punishment.
Peter Kierst, a University of New Mexico senior lecturer in political science who teaches constitutional law and theory and served as a trial lawyer in New Mexico for 30 years, elaborated in an email about Mitchell’s punishment and its effects.
“It is more than an informal reprimand, less than a suspension from office,” Kierst stated. The censure does not affect the judge's authority on the bench, or his term of office.
“The effect on him personally is undoubtedly real — no one would want to be publicly criticized for a violation of the rules of their profession. Whether it has an effect on the judge in the future — when he seeks retention to his position, or if he seeks higher judicial office — is for the people of the district to decide, weighing the nature of the violation, his response to it, his many years of service and so on.”
Primrose declined to comment. An email sent April 9 to Mitchell requesting comment was not answered.
An attempt to contact former Gov. Martinez for comment was unsuccessful.
Mitchell has served as judge on the 10th Judicial District since 2008.
Mitchell lost his 2014 election. He needed 57 percent of votes for retention, but voters called for his ouster by a 1,884-1,880 count. Martinez re-appointed him to the position a few months later.
The New Mexico Supreme Court nixed a petition to block his appointment, and he was re-elected in 2016.