For their next Taos Magistrate Court judge, Taos County residents will have three choices come this primary election day: Edwardo Martinez, a veteran New Mexico State Police lieutenant and a graduate …
For their next Taos Magistrate Court judge, Taos County residents will have three choices in this year's primary election: Sara Blankenhorn, a local attorney who beat out five other applicants to win Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's appointment to the bench two months ago; Edwardo Martinez, a veteran New Mexico State Police lieutenant and a graduate of the FBI National Academy; or Charlene Tsoodle-Marcus, a former Taos Pueblo tribal judge and legal administrator.
Aside from all three being from the area and running as Democrats in this year's election, the candidates elaborated about their different professional backgrounds at a forum broadcast via Zoom Monday night (May 18), the final forum the Taos County Democratic Party will host before the June 2 primary.
One of the first questions party chair Darien Fernandez posed to the candidates pointed to one of the biggest differences among them that may – or may not – matter to voters: He asked whether or not a law degree is important for a magistrate judge to have, even though one is not required to be appointed or elected a magistrate in the state.
Blankenhorn, 37, is the only one among the three to hold a law degree, but her opponents have each spent a greater amount of time working in the legal field.
"My answer to that is I've been working in the criminal justice system since the age of 20," responded Martinez, 44. "I've attended hundreds of magistrate court hearings, district court, municipal court, federal court, tribal court. I've been in and out of court for 23 years. I know how the system works. I know how the law works. I've studied the law for that entire time."
Before he joined state police, Martinez worked for Taos Pueblo Tribal Police and Taos Police Department. After reaching the rank of lieutenant with state police, Martinez served for six years as the commander in Taos, Española, Chama and Chimayo. He graduated from the FBI academy in Virginia in 2017 with a criminal justice certification.
At the end of last year, he retired to make a run for magistrate judge. While he doesn't hold a law degree, Martinez managed to acquire two associate degrees while still serving with state police – one in police science and another in criminal justice.
Tsoodle-Marcus, who logged in late the forum due to "technical difficulties," said that although she also never went to law school, she has been working in the criminal justice system for 30 years.
In that time, she has worked as a legal administrator, extradition officer, institute coordinator and records supervisor for the New Mexico Prison Records Department. She worked as the jail administrator for Taos County and as a tribal judge at Taos Pueblo, where she is from. Before beginning her campaign, Tsoodle-Marcus had served as the domestic violence program director for Eight Nothern Indian Pueblos Council.
She received an associate degree in police science from Monterey Peninsula College and a bachelor's in criminal justice from New Mexico State University. This year, she plans to complete a master's in criminal justice from Capella University. She has also taught criminal justice courses at Northern New Mexico College and the University of New Mexico.
"There are many good judges that don't have law degrees and primarily it's based on knowledge and experience," Tsoodle-Marcus, 72, said.
Ernest Ortega, the chief judge in Taos Magistrate Court who was appointed in 2006 and won reelection in 2018, is one such example of a long-serving judge who didn't go to law school. On the other hand, Blankenhorn's predecessor, Jeff Shannon, who was appointed to fill a spot in Taos District Court in 2019, did hold a Juris Doctor.
"Well obviously I do think that a law degree is incredible useful," Blankenhorn said, when asked about the importance of the credential. "There's three years where you're doing nothing but reading case law, studying statutes and figuring out the incredible intricacies that are involved in our justice system. And it's not just criminal law, it's civil law, too."
According to the résumé she submitted to the Taos News, Blankenhorn graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy in 2004, from St. John's College in Santa Fe with a Master of Arts in classic Western literature and philosophy in 2008 and University of New Mexico School of Law with a Juris Doctor in 2011.
While still in school, Blankenhorn completed several internships and began working as a law clerk in 2010. In 2011, she went on to work as assistant district attorney for the 1st Judicial District in Santa Fe, where she spent a year. She then worked for the Albuquerque Public Defender's Office during the summer of 2012.
From 2016 to when she received the governor's appointment this year, she served as a contract attorney for Community Against Violence. She had also worked as a researcher and writer for civil law for Natelson Law Firm in Taos since 2013.
Fernandez asked the candidates what qualities a magistrate judge should have, and all three listed the traits one would expect, such as honesty, fairness and objectivity. Blankenhorn said that a "good working knowledge of the law is important" and "some experience about where people are coming from." Tsoodle-Marcus said there should be "equal balances" in the courtroom, with attorneys representing both sides. Martinez said, "You shouldn't be biased in any way, whether it's political bias, racial – anything like that."
Referencing data compiled by the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, Martinez later said that 160,000 cases were filed in all state magistrate courts last year. Around 56 percent were traffic cases, 34 percent were criminal cases and just 10 percent were civil. Judge Ortega said on Wednesday (May 20) that around 3,000 new cases are filed in Taos Magistrate Court each year, with around 3,000 old cases that roll over annually.
Martinez said he would look to provide better customer service training to court clerks and seek to create a better work environment that might reduce turnover in a job that can be stressful.
Tsoodle-Marcus said she would focus on finding solutions for alternative sentencing, such as drug and mental health treatment resources, which are both currently very limited in Taos County.
Asked what changes are needed in the magistrate court, Blankenhorn said managing the court has been complicated in light of the coronavirus pandemic. "Well right now ... it's kind of a little tricky to speak to that because since I've taken the bench everything is turned upside down. So as far as change we live in right now ... it's all changed." She later added that she wanted to make sure that "nothing falls through the cracks" on her end and that her docket runs smoothly.
She said she doesn't see the job of a magistrate judge as a political one, adding, "The job is pretty clear. You have to manage the cases in front of you and entering into the political arena, I don't see that as our job."
Early voting has already begun in Taos County. The deadline to submit a request for an absentee ballot is May 28.
The forum can be viewed on YouTube.
A prior version of this story stated that Edwardo Martinez said 160,000 new cases were filed in Taos Magistrate Court each year. Martinez was referring to the total number of cases filed in all New Mexico magistrate courts each year.
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