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Supreme Court of New Mexico

June 26, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF SABINO RAMIREZ Municipal Court Judge, Village of Hatch, New Mexico INQUIRY CONCERNING A JUDGE NO. 2008-115

          James A. Noel Randall D. Roybal Albuquerque, NM for Judicial Standards Commission

          Mario A. Esparza Law Office Mario A. Esparza Las Cruces, NM for Respondent


          PER CURIAM.

         {¶1} Judge Sabino Ramirez (Ramirez), municipal judge for the Village of Hatch, entered into a stipulation agreement and consent to discipline with the Judicial Standards Commission. In the agreement, Ramirez admits to conduct that (1) violates several rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct, (2) constitutes willful misconduct in office, and (3) would provide sufficient basis for the Court to impose discipline upon him pursuant to Article VI, Section 32 of the New Mexico Constitution. We have categorized the conduct into three categories for purposes of our discussion: (1) the use of judicial resources to resolve a private dispute; (2) failure to recuse in a case in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned; and (3) improper issuance of a court summons.

         {¶2} In reviewing a petition for discipline under Rule 27-401(A)(1) NMRA, this Court may "accept, reject or modify any or all of the findings and conclusions of the commission[, ]" and "we are charged with independently evaluating the record for the presence or absence of clear and convincing evidence[.]" In re Castellano, 119 N.M. 140, 149, 889 P.2d 175, 184 (1995) (per curiam). In addition, under Rule 27-401(A)(3), the Court may impose discipline recommended by the Commission or "any other greater or lesser discipline" we deem to be appropriate under the circumstances. However, this matter is before the Court on a petition for discipline upon stipulation, and pursuant to its terms, we may only accept or reject the petition's ultimate disposition of discipline. The proceedings before the Commission have been held in abeyance pending acceptance by this Court. If we reject all or a portion of the disciplinary recommendations, the matter must be remanded to the Commission for further proceedings. We grant the stipulated petition and publish this formal reprimand consistent with the discipline agreed to by the parties.

         {¶3} The following facts are set forth in the stipulated petition. Beginning in September 2008, Ramirez had private conversations with David Trujillo about Trujillo's personal financial dispute with Leland and Lynette Jones. This matter was not pending before Ramirez, and as a civil dispute, could not have been brought before Ramirez. See NMSA 1978, § 35-14-2 (1961, as amended through 1988). During these private conversations, Trujillo apparently asserted that the Joneses owed him additional compensation for work Trujillo performed while cleaning their property. Based on these conversations, Ramirez placed a telephone call to the Joneses' residence on or about September 29, 2008. No one answered, and Ramirez left a message on the Joneses' answering machine, identifying himself as a judge and stating that he was calling in reference to the financial dispute between them and Trujillo. Ramirez left word that he wanted the situation "cleared up" and that he expected the Joneses to return his call soon. The Joneses apparently never called Judge Ramirez back.

         {¶4} On October 16, 2008, Ramirez followed up his telephone call with a letter to the Joneses, written on Village of Hatch stationery, using his judicial title and court name. In the letter, Ramirez implied that he had been discussing the matter with Trujillo, who had informed him that he (Trujillo) had cleaned the Joneses' property, noted that he had seen pictures of the property before it was cleaned by Trujillo and "request[ed] that [they] come to an arrangement with Mr. Trujillo before the matter escalates." Ramirez then indicated that civil litigation would be initiated unless the Joneses made arrangement to pay Trujillo in full.

         {¶5} We agree with the parties that these facts describe conduct that violates the following New Mexico Rules of Judicial Conduct: 21-100 (maintaining the integrity and the independence of the judiciary), 21-200 (avoiding the appearance of impropriety in all of a judge's activities), 21-300 (performing the duties of office impartially and diligently), and 21-500 (conducting extra-judicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with judicial obligations). We address each of these violations in turn.

         {¶6} Rule 21-100 states that "[a] judge shall participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved." The primary purpose of this rule is to charge each judge with the task of maintaining an independent judiciary so that the public confidence in our judicial system is reinforced. As is explained in the committee commentary to Rule 21-100:

Deference to the judgments and rulings of courts depends upon public confidence in the integrity and independence of judges. The integrity and independence of judges depends in turn upon their acting without fear or favor. A judiciary of integrity is one in which judges are known for their probity, fairness, honesty, uprightness and soundness of character. An independent judiciary is one free of inappropriate outside influences. Although judges should be independent, they must comply with the law, including the provisions of this Code. Public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is maintained by the adherence of each judge to this responsibility. Conversely, violation of this Code diminishes public confidence in the judiciary and thereby does injury to the system of government under law.

         If the public perceives that a judge has been unfairly influenced when deciding the merits of a case, then public trust and confidence in the judiciary is eroded. Here, Ramirez gave the impression that he had decided the merits of Trujillo's claim against the Joneses without allowing them an opportunity to refute Trujillo's claims in court. Such actions can hardly be said to promote judicial independence. At a minimum, they suggest that Ramirez had improperly sided with Trujillo. At most, they invite the public to infer that Ramirez had advocated Trujillo's interests as a favor to him or for some personal gain. Such actions undermine, as opposed to promote, the integrity of the judiciary and are in violation of each judge's charge to maintain the judiciary's independence.

         {¶7} Similarly, public trust and confidence is eroded when a judge uses his or her authority in office to resolve a dispute that is not before the judge. This point is made clear in Rule 21-200(A)-(B), which requires judges to "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" and forbids judges from "lend[ing] the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interest of the judge or others[.]" These principles go hand in hand. When Ramirez used the authority of his judicial office to promote Trujillo's interests, he made obvious his partiality to Trujillo's cause, thereby undermining the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Although this case was not pending before him, Ramirez's actions were nonetheless improper. "A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on the judge's conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly." Rule 21-200 committee commentary. Simply put, our Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits a judge from using the authority of his or her office at any time to advance the interests of another.

         {¶8} Rule 21-300(B)(10) forbids a judge from making a nonpublic comment about a proceeding impending before any court that might substantially interfere with a fair trial or hearing. Here, after listening to only Trujillo's side of the dispute, Ramirez apparently accepted Trujillo's story as true and subsequently contacted the Joneses. He identified himself as a judge familiar with the dispute and insisted on some action from them. His telephone message was as follows:

Hello, Lynne Jones, this is Judge Ramirez in Hatch. The reason for my call is a claim from David Trujillo in reference to Lynette Jones' residence here in Hatch for a clean-up. And he explained the situation to me. He says he received a check for partial payment and you put down final payment on it and we want to get this cleared up. So can you please call me at the police department here in Hatch? Its area code 575-267-3021. Again, this is Municipal Judge Sabino Ramirez. I expect a call from you as ...

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