As a Taos County Magistrate Judge since 2006, and chief judge since 2012, Ernest Ortega is proud of what he's accomplished during his 12 years on the bench, but says there's more to do to leave the …
As a Taos County Magistrate Judge since 2006, and chief judge since 2012, Ernest Ortega is proud of what he's accomplished during his 12 years on the bench, but says there's more to do to leave the court in better shape than when he first took office.
A native of Arroyo Seco, Ortega said he began to show natural leadership skills during his childhood years, drawing other kids to him and helping them realize goals that exceeded what others expected of them.
He first applied that skill in the political realm, working as a special assistant to former U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman in Washington, D.C. and Santa Fe from 1983 to 1989. He spent time during the 1990s working at a rehabilitation program for convicts as director of services, and then returned home to Taos County for three years, from 1997 to 2000, to serve as director of pretrial services at the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office.
After four years as press secretary for the New Mexico Secretary of State in the mid-2000s, Ortega said he was looking to "return home." He entered the running for magistrate judge at the Taos County Courthouse Complex, winning the first of three consecutive terms.
Now running for his fourth, and in light of deep budget cuts that trimmed the judicial system across the state last year, Ortega hopes to see the court system become better staffed - and expanded - over the next four years.
"We are understaffed and our clerks are underpaid," Ortega said. "It's not right what's occurring."
Today, magistrate court clerks have been told to not even answer the phone as caseloads, according to Ortega, have at least doubled since he first took office. On any given week, a total of four full-time workers, including a court manager, and one half-time worker, are hard at work, Ortega said.
He and his fellow magistrate judge down the hall in Taos, Judge Jeff Shannon, both saw the closure of the long-serving Questa circuit court last year. They also were told by New Mexico's Administrative Office of the Courts that they could no longer take trips to Peñasco to help its residents resolve traffic tickets or civil disputes, for example. The judges had made the 45-minute drive on their own dime. Instead, residents in Taos' outlying communities must now make the trip to Taos for even minor offenses.
If re-elected, Ortega said he will push current and future state administrations to not only restore the circuit court in Questa, but to also open another in Peñasco, where the judges had previously set up shop at a community center.
Ortega, 64, says he has gas left in the tank to make the changes necessary.
"I feel strong enough to go for another term, so that's what I'm going to do," he said. "I want to feel good about the status of the court when I turn it over to new judges."
- John Miller
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