NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW MEXICO · Secret Courts · Jan. 31, 2006
Judges had right to criticize officials in newspaper
Jan. 31, 2006 · Two New Mexico municipal judges will not be disciplined for criticizing city prosecutors and police in a local newspaper in 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.
The court ruled 4-1 Wednesday to dismiss a state Judicial Standards Commission petition against Las Cruces Municipal Court Judges Melissa Miller-Byrnes and James Locatelli, who criticized city officials in the Las Cruces Sun-News in June 2004.
The commission sought a 30-day suspension for Miller-Byrnes and a fine for Locatelli as discipline for what it called in a legal filing “a pattern of disparaging comments . . . against specific leaders and individuals in city government.”
Commission attorney Elizabeth Garcia argued that the judges’ comments eroded public confidence in the judiciary and illustrated bias against prosecutors. Chief Justice Richard Bosson disagreed, and said the judges’ remarks “could be seen as fighting for the judiciary, trying to get the resources that the court needs,” the Sun-News reported Thursday.
Although the judges based their ruling on standards of judicial conduct and a lack of willful misconduct rather than the First Amendment, Kip Purcell, the judges’ attorney, said the ruling is still “a victory for judicial speech.”
“The questions posed by the court at oral argument made it clear that the judges were acutely aware of recent developments in First Amendment law,” he said.
“They understood that these comments and this letter to the editor appeared against a backdrop of First Amendment law that puts a thumb on the scales in favor of free speech.”
The issue arose in May 2004 when the judges sent letters to several Las Cruces city officials describing “numerous and persistent problems in both the City Attorney’s office and the Las Cruces Police Department which interfere with the functioning and purpose of the Municipal Court.”
In one of the letters, the judges said they regularly had to dismiss cases because of “prosecutorial incompetence” on the part of police and prosecutors, according to court records.
Neither judge intended the remarks to become public, but the letters came to light when they were leaked to the Sun-News, which published a story about the issue in mid-June, Purcell said.
Miller-Byrnes was quoted in the story calling an assistant attorney “a smart ass, a smart aleck who has interfered with the administration of justice.” The judge, who acknowledged that the “smart ass” comment was improper, believed the conversation was off the record when she agreed to speak, Purcell said.
After a local police association wrote a letter to the Sun-News criticizing both judges for airing their complaints in print, Locatelli responded. In a letter to the editor, the judge said he and Miller-Byrnes were “tired of seeing intoxicated drivers and other offenders go free because the prosecution is not doing its job.” He also encouraged the city to strengthen its oversight and training programs in the police and prosecutor’s offices.
According to a Judicial Standards Commission filing, both judges’ comments were “calculated to erode public confidence” in the city officials. The judges violated rules requiring them to be impartial and uphold the impartiality, integrity and independence of the court, the commission argued.
Although the state’s Supreme Court dismissed the commission’s petition, it ruled unanimously that Miller-Byrnes violated rules for judges during her interview with the Sun-News reporter. An infraction will be entered into the record and placed in her Judicial Standards Commission file, the court said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the judges, arguing that their comments were protected under the First Amendment and the New Mexico Constitution.
(Respondents’ Counsel: Kip Purcell, Rodey Dickason Sloan Akin & Robb; Albuquerque, N.M.) — AB