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Battle over judge’s secret recordings headed to Supreme Court

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

As a new magistrate judge, Connie Lee Johnston once advised a New Mexico State Police sergeant, just before court was to begin, to stick around. “I’m sure someone is going to jail,” she reportedly said. Asked to whom she was referring, Johnston replied, “Whoever gives me lip.”

Then there was the time Johnston, a former San Juan County sheriff’s deputy and undercover detective, lifted up her shirt and asked the presiding magistrate judge if he wanted to pat her down to ensure she wasn’t wearing a wire.

Connie Lee Johnston

These incidents and others revealed in court documents paint a bizarre picture of Johnston’s transition from street cop to magistrate in the Four Corners town of Aztec. Her stint as a jurist was short-lived and controversial.

Johnston, 53, is now awaiting trial this fall on criminal charges filed by the state Attorney General’s Office over hundreds of hours of secret recordings she made before being permanently removed from the bench last October.

Her ouster by the state Supreme Court came after she was suspended in December 2015 for ordering the arrest of a court clerk who she claimed was distracting her.

Johnston has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor criminal charges of interference with communications and violating the Governmental Conduct Act. She has maintained she made the recordings to prove there was a conspiracy against her in Aztec’s Magistrate Court.

The fate of her secret audio recordings, some made inside secured, non-public areas of the Magistrate Courthouse, are at the center of an usual legal battle, bound for the state’s highest court.

Those who claim to be victims of her surreptitious “bugging” – two magistrates and two court staff – want the state Judicial Standards Commission to relinquish or destroy the covert recordings, which the commission obtained during its investigation of Johnston’s conduct.

Without acknowledging that it possesses recordings, the commission has refused the request, citing its mandate of confidentiality.

The commission has asked that the Supreme Court block the legal maneuvers seeking the recordings’ return. Oral arguments in the case are set for May 10.

It marks the third attempt by the court officials to obtain the recordings, which they say contain conversations and personal phone calls they never would have shared with Johnston or anyone else.

Their Farmington-based attorney told the Journal last week that the private communications shouldn’t remain the property of the government now that Johnston is no longer a magistrate.

“We want the tapes just to safeguard them. We just want the evidence returned like it would be in any other court (after a proceeding is over),” said H. Steven Murphy, attorney for the court officials. “Judicial Standards thinks they’re above the law, like they’re a star chamber.”

“These secret recordings contain intimate details of personal life, relationship details, family details, marriage details, intimacy, private debts, protected medical information, and other personal details,” the court officials’ motion states.

Randall D. Roybal, executive director of the Judicial Standards Commission, wouldn’t comment about the case last week.

The 13-member commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct against state and municipal judges, is composed of lawyers, judges and seven lay people. Only when the commission files charges are its investigations made public.

“The Commission has a strong public interest in maintaining the constitutionally mandated confidential status of its files,” stated a commission response. “If the Court allows Intervenors to pierce the veil of the constitutionally imposed confidentiality of Commission matters, then there is nothing to prevent any person from obtaining information from the Commission on every judge in New Mexico.”

Johnston is set for trial this fall on the 13 criminal misdemeanor charges that allege she violated state law by recording the unwitting court officials in their offices.

New Mexico law permits such recordings so long as one person in a conversation knows it is being done. But the AG says Johnston planted devices that illegally recorded conversations to which she was not a party.

Her husband, Brian Johnston, told the Journal his wife has been instructed by her attorney not to comment about the case.

Connie Lee Johnston is alleged to have planted recording devices to listen to the oral and telephone conversations of Magistrate Judges Barry Sharer, and Trudy Reed-Chase; court manager Lori Proctor, and employee Amy Verhulst.

“As with all conspiracies, the target is labeled as unstable, paranoid, or unfit,” Johnston’s attorney wrote in her defense. The motion said she made the surreptitious recordings as “evidence” to prove a plot was being orchestrated by her fellow judges to support her removal.

To her critics, Johnston posted a long comment on Facebook, stating in part, “You should be asking what is on those recordings that is making others go to extremes…”

Removal by Supreme Court

The 54 magistrate courts in New Mexico handle cases such as landlord-tenant rights, traffic violations and preliminary felony hearings. They also sign off on search and arrest warrants for law enforcement officers.

There’s no requirement in smaller New Mexico towns that magistrates be attorneys.

Johnston took office in August 2014 after besting six others in the Republican primary. No Democrat was in the race.

During the election campaign, Johnston noted her 14 years experience as a former Farmington Police officer and sheriff’s deputy who worked undercover assignments to fight crime. She also pledged to “clean up the Aztec Magistrate’s court.”

Johnston claimed that, once on the job, she became a victim of invasion of privacy.

Johnston complained to courthouse officials that she suspected employees were going through her “personal items” in her court office and placed two hidden cameras in her office at court to prove her point.

Even with videos, she was told that the clerks had done nothing wrong and that there is “no right to privacy in a government office,” she said in one court record.

Magistrate court officials began to suspect they were being recorded in their offices but finally got proof, Murphy said, during a Nov. 2015 incident.

According to the criminal complaint against Johnston, she came into court manager Proctor’s office, knelt in front of her desk and started trying to feel around the bottom of the desk.

When confronted, she claimed she was picking up a piece of popcorn, but when she left she was “putting something down her shirt in a panic,” the complaint stated.

Murphy said a black object with two wires was sticking out of the judge’s shirt.

As the courthouse drama unfolded, Johnston was considered “erratic” and was barred from bringing her concealed firearm to court, court records allege.

Tension was high on Dec. 1, 2015, when Johnston held the court clerk in contempt and ordered her arrested after she refused to leave the room. The clerk had been ordered to stay in the courtroom by the presiding judge, but Johnston contended she found the clerk’s presence “distracting.”

That incident triggered Johnston’s suspension by the state Supreme Court.

A subsequent investigation by the Judicial Standards Commission recommended her removal, citing her “willful misconduct,” which included the arrest of the clerk and her informal communications with parties in cases pending in her court.

The Supreme Court ordered her permanent removal last October.

In March 2017, after court officials sued her, Johnston was sanctioned $12,000 by a district judge in Farmington for failing to submit all of the recordings as ordered.

Johnston was found to have doctored some and deleted portions of others, a charge she denied.

Attorney Murphy acknowledges that the recordings held by the Judicial Standards Commission are copies, and that Johnston could very well have the originals. He believes Johnston, in retaliation, would use the recordings to try to discredit her former colleagues come re-election time.

Johnston’s husband of 14 years denied that assertion.

Brian Johnston, a retired San Juan County sheriff’s deputy, said he and his wife have moved out of state and had to sell property to pay for the $12,000 fine.

He told the Journal they regret she ever ran for Aztec magistrate court, adding, “there’s some strange stuff going on there.”

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