Among the numerous state programs slashed during this year’s legislative session in Santa Fe, the signing of House Bill 12, which closes magistrate circuit courts in Taos and Catron counties, may have passed under the radar for some in New Mexico’s larger urban centers.
For those who reside in the villages that dot New Mexico’s rural landscape, however, the passing of the bill figures as one more factor that isolates their communities and extends the road to deal with relatively minor offenses – such as traffic tickets or civil disputes – by many miles.
The road from Taos to the converted one-story apartment that houses the Questa Magistrate Circuit Court along the Red River is about 24 miles, or a half-hour drive. On Monday (April 17), Taos Magistrate Court Judge Ernest Ortega made the trip for what may be the last time – “at least for a while,” he said.
Those living in Questa or other outlying areas in Taos County – such as Costilla, north of Questa, or Peñasco – will now have to make the trip to Taos, presenting challenges for residents Ortega said he and other officials will not overlook.
Under pressure from a contracting state budget – of which the New Mexico judiciary branch uses only about 3 percent – the court’s role in Questa and other small communities has diminished over the years from a once-bustling, full-time judicial center, then to a part-time office and finally to a circuit courthouse soon to close.
The lease on the unit is set to expire next week on Monday (April 24), but renovations have already begun, giving the interior the ghostly appearance of a Chernobyl-esque abandoned building in its current state.
Loose boards and paint chips were strewn along the walls and floors and all furniture had been removed – save for two chairs and a table, where Ortega set down two cups of coffee among stacks of paperwork around 10 a.m. on Monday (April 17).
His first and only client of the day, Joe Mandonado, 52, a local resident who lives in the building next door, arrived a few minutes later to respond to a traffic citation he received for not wearing a seat belt.
“I’ve had my license for 30 years and this is my first ticket, boss,” Mandonado said proudly.
He and Ortega had met before and engaged in an informal conversation as documents were exchanged and signed and the ticket was resolved.
“That’s it,” Ortega said as he filed the final paperwork. “You’re probably the last one. I’m going to go back to Taos today to close the case.”
“I figure I’d rather deal with this here, you know?” Mandonado responded, explaining that he made the trip to the Taos County Judicial Complex on another matter with a relative a few weeks prior. “That place is always packed, huh?”
At one time, the Questa circuit court was, too.
Gesturing around the room, Ortega wistfully recalled an office that once had a dedicated clerk in the room up front, where copy machines would hum and beep as police officers, lawyers and clients came and went throughout the day, some responding to citations, but others simply seeking counsel on procedure.
When the court was open full time, Ortega said that he and fellow Magistrate Court Judge Jeff Shannon sometimes saw 100 clients each month, averaging somewhere in the realm of 300-500 in a year.
And clients weren’t just local Questa residents. Ortega said he would see people traveling from as far as Costilla or Amalia to the circuit court – residents who will now have to travel about 100 miles round trip to Taos to respond to misdemeanors.
“A lot of times,” Ortega said, “the folks a circuit court really helps are elderly people, people who don’t have transportation or people who are disabled.”
But while finding a ride is one problem, the judges’ loss of contact with outlying communities is another, Ortega said. “We’re no longer in contact as much. We’re not as much a part of these communities anymore, and that’s a real downside.”
The same loss of contact occurred earlier this year in Peñasco, which is southeast of Taos, when The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts informed Ortega and Shannon they would no longer be able to use a local community center as an unofficial setting to assist local residents, as originally reported by Andrew Oxford of the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“We just had a room with a copy machine in it, and they didn’t charge us for the room or the machine,” Ortega said. “We would go there on our own dime and advertise the hours that we were there. People from Peñasco would call and ask to see one of us, and we would take care of business right there.”
Ortega concedes that the closure of the circuit courts is a necessary action given the “dire” state of the New Mexico state budget, though he remains hopeful that, under a new administration, the courts will reopen.
“There’s a homemade magistrate court sign out front,” he said. “On the 28th, when the lease is up, we’re going to take that little sign down and save it for when we reopen the circuit court. And no matter where it is, we’re going to stick that same sign up.”