Thursday, July 28, 2005

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: TOUGH QUESTIONS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 28, 2005

Back in late May when the appointment of Tommy Rodella as a magistrate judge in Rio Arriba already had kicked up a controversy, Gov. Bill Richardson said the public stink over the appointment had prompted him to start “tightening up the vetting process” for potential judges.


“We’re checking references, spending more time in interviews with applicants and asking tougher questions,” Richardson told me following a May 28 news conference.

Last Friday, just before he stalked out of another news conference when the questions about Rodella — who resigned last week after a meeting where Richardson expressed his unhappiness over the handling of a drunken-driving case — Richardson repeated his claim that he now spends more time with magistrate applicants and asks tougher questions of them.

However, at least three of the 21 applicants who were passed over last month for the new Santa Fe magistrate position said this week their interviews with Richardson were short and the questions weren’t that tough.

The applicant who go the job was Sandy Miera for the Santa Fe magistrate position. Miera worked as executive assistant for District Judge Daniel Sanchez. She’s also the daughter of Santa Fe County Democratic Chairwoman Minnie Gallegos.

One of the applicants, Andrew O’Connor said Richardson asked him only one question: “Is there anything in your past that would hurt me politically if I appoint you?” Richardson, O’Connor said, explained that what he meant by that was whether he’d ever been arrested or had any DWIs.

He said he tried to tell Richardson about his work as a public defender and the fact he had graduated from Vanderbilt University, O’Connor said, “but he cut me off.”

Another applicant was P.J. Liebson, a teacher and former librarian who holds a certificate in paralegal studies from the University of New Mexico. (She’s also a published author of murder mysteries under the pen name of P.J. Grady.)

Liebson, who said her interview lasted about five minutes, said Richardson asked her how she would handle DWI and domestic violence cases. But the next question was even deeper.“He asked me about electability,” she said. “I told him I was a registered independent. I think I might have lost the job right there.”

Another applicant said her interview with Richardson lasted only five or 10 minutes and that the governor seemed mainly interested in her view on DWI enforcement.

Tony’s view: A former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Tony Scarborough sees some irony in the recent Rodella flap.

Scarborough, now in private practice in Espanola, recalled the controversy when Richardson in 2003 demanded the resignations of all six members of the 11-member commission who were appointed by his predecessor.

Those commissioners filed a legal challenge, asking the state Supreme Court to block Richardson, arguing the governor has no power to remove members whose terms had not expired. However, by a 3-2 decision, the high court ruled the governor could oust those members.

Opponents accused Richardson of trying to consolidate power and enlarge the influence of the governor’s office.

But in demanding Rodella’s resignation last week, Richardson usurped the power of the very Judicial Standards Commission he’d stacked, Scarborough said.

“It’s like he handpicked the jury, then took the case away from the jury and decided himself,” the former justice said.“Too bad the commission and our Supreme Court lack the guts to stand up to the governor and remind him of the separation of powers doctrine,” Scarborough said.

Richardson, who defended his appointment of Rodella for months, changed his tune after news broke of Rodella driving from the Espanola area to the county jail in Tierra Amarilla on July 4 to deliver release papers for an acquaintance who’d been arrested on DWI charges.

Rodella told me last week that Richardson didn’t ask him to quit. The governor insists that he did — though his spokesmen have acknowledged a governor doesn’t have the constitutional authority to force a judge to resign.

Scarborough — who stepped down from the high court in 1990 for an unsuccessful race for governor — expressed sympathy for Rodella.“I’m not close to Tommy, but I felt sorry for him,” Scarborough said. “What he did wasn’t all that bad. I think he’s just motivated to help people.”

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