Updated Aug. 1 at 9:27 a.m.
Marcus Montoya, a prosecutor at the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office since 2017, was sworn in as district attorney Thursday morning (Aug. 1) in Taos District Court, succeeding Donald Gallegos.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced earlier this week that Montoya, 41, had been selected as Gallegos' replacement after the four-and-a-half-term DA announced his early retirement in June.
District Court Judge Emilio Chavez inaugurated Montoya, a graduate of Taos High School who grew up in Ranchos de Taos, in a courtroom packed with relatives, friends, Taos Magistrate Court judges, fellow prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
"You’re going to be the chief law enforcement officer of our three counties," said Judge Chavez. "You’re going to be charged with protecting our community, while protecting the rights of those that you prosecute. And it’s not an easy role; it’s a role where rarely are you going to make everybody happy, but it’s one of the most important roles that we have in society and our local government and it shouldn’t be taken lightly."
Montoya interned at the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office while he was obtaining his law degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law. During that time, he served as a clerk for Taos District Court Judges Emilio Chavez and Sarah Backus, who retired early this year. Montoya also completed a clinic focused on prosecuting domestic violence and DWI cases in Albuquerque while he was still a law student.
Upon graduation, Montoya took aim at returning to Taos.
"It’s home," Montoya said. "I was born in Taos. Ranchos de Taos is where I grew up. I’m a Taos High graduate."
Gallegos hired him as a full-time prosecutor in June 2017.
Over the past two years, Montoya has worked several high-profile cases that have resulted in important convictions, including a 2017 murder case filed against Brandon Lopez, who was given a rare life sentence as a result of Montoya's prosecution with other members of the DA's office.
"We’re proud of helping people who have been traumatized," he said of the outcome. "And that’s not easy. The conviction doesn’t mean that they automatically feel better. But they do feel a sense of closure."
In his first months as DA, Montoya said he plans to settle in and absorb the dynamics of the office, but eventually, he said, there are areas where the DA's office can improve its operations.
"It's no secret that the Amalia compound case was a mess," he said. "The magnitude of it was so big and there are so many moving parts that it’s easy to say that it was simple. It was a disagreement as to the law."
During the initial processing of child abuse cases filed against the five adults who were arrested at the compound (which was located just outside of Amalia proper), judges Chavez and Jeff McElroy tossed out the cases after they said prosecutors John Lovelace and Tim Hasson failed to meet the deadline to hold preliminary hearings when defendants are incarcerated.
While Montoya said that Hasson and Lovelace, under Gallegos' advisement, had a tenable argument as to why that time frame should have been extended, he said the dismissal of the cases could have been averted.
"There was some type of gap there that needed to be filled, and it’s my job to find out what it was and how we avoid that moving forward," Montoya said.
Wednesday (July 30) marked Gallegos' final day as district attorney, a position he had held since he was first elected in 2001. He announced he planned to retire in June of this year, with a little more than a year and a half remaining before the expiration of his fifth term. When he announced his retirement, he said he planned to recommend Montoya to finish out his final term.
"He's been very good in the office," Gallegos said at the time. "He understands all aspects of the office and he's asked me a lot about the way things work. I'm hoping he gets strong consideration."
While Montoya acknowledged that he's not the most experienced member of the DA's office in Taos when he interviewed with the governor, he said he would bring other talents to the office.
"My skills surround leadership and our values: What’s the right thing to do? What is our mission? What does our office represent?" he said. "I plan to meet with our legislators, law enforcement and the community – talk with people. That’s what qualifies me for this job. I’m more qualified for this than almost any job in the office."