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Editorial: Voters should keep all 18 Metro judges on the bench

After getting elected, judges are required to go before voters for retention. This year 18 of Albuquerque’s Metro Court judges are up for retention. Any who fail to get a “yes” from 57 percent of those voting on their retention will be out of a job.

The state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission evaluates judges. This year the commission is recommending voters not retain Judges Edward Benavidez, Michelle Castillo Dowler, Kenny Montoya and Linda Rogers.

While we respect JPEC, we disagree after interviewing JPEC and the judges and looking at their records. The Journal recommends retaining Benavidez, Castillo Dowler, Montoya and Rogers, as well as the other judges, so they can continue their important work to keep Albuquerque safe.

Judge Edward Benavidez

Benavidez has served as Metropolitan Court chief judge since May of 2017, overseeing the court’s $27 million budget and 300 employees. And he has presided over DWI Recovery Court for the last four years. Of the 335 offenders who graduated from the program, only 13 have re-offended, an astonishing success rate and proof this program is making a difference. And he’s juggled these duties while presiding over regular cases.

In surveys, 82 percent of court staff and 77 percent of resource staff (police officers) recommended Benavidez be retained. But only 51 percent of attorneys surveyed recommended retention. Benavidez, who has been a Metro Court judge for 10 years, says he ran afoul of defense attorneys and JPEC in part because he still sets bonds for defendants he feels are a danger or flight risk. He has a 94 percent affirmation rate on appeal while also maintaining the highest case clearance rate in Metro Court.

Judge Michelle Castillo Dowler

Castillo Dowler has served as a Metro Court judge since January 2012. In addition to maintaining a full caseload and handling felony first appearances, Castillo Dowler was instrumental in preparing the court for preliminary hearings. Metro Court began handling preliminary hearings in January; judges say the court was ready because of her efforts.

Of those surveyed, 81 percent of police and other resource staff said Castillo Dowler should be retained; 58 percent of court staff and 55 percent of attorneys recommended retention. Castillo Dowler, a former prosecutor, admits she gets frustrated when proceedings should run more efficiently and can be direct when she catches errors. She has largely been upheld on appeal and has a high case clearance rate.

Judge Kenny Montoya

Montoya, a former adjutant general of the N.M. National Guard, has been a Metro Court judge for four years. He presides over the Outreach Specialty Court, which tries to get homeless defendants on the right path, and he’s helping with the new substance use and treatment options program.

Of those surveyed about whether Montoya should be retained, 88 percent of court staff, more than 80 percent of police officers and resource staff and 63 percent of attorneys said he should. Still, JPEC says attorneys give him lower ratings in exercising sound legal reasoning and being knowledgeable regarding law and rules of procedure and evidence. Like Benavidez, Montoya says defense attorneys aren’t happy with him because he makes some defendants post bond, particularly if evidence shows they’re a danger.

Judge Linda Rogers

Rogers has been a Metro Court judge since 2006, from 2010-2017 she presided over Mental Health Court and she’s currently presiding judge of competency court.

While 71 percent of attorneys and 68 percent of court staff surveyed said Rogers should be retained, only 43 percent of resource staff – police officers – said she should be retained. Rogers suspects officers gave her low ratings because she tends to dismiss cases without prejudice – meaning they can be re-filed – if the officer fails to show up to court and doesn’t call with a reason. She says she’s only following the rules.

Again, the Journal recommends voters keep Benavidez, Castillo Dowler, Montoya and Rogers on the bench, as well as the other Metro Court judges up for retention: Henry Alaniz, Rosie Lazcano Allred, Vidalia Chavez, Rosemary Cosgrove-Aguilar, Maria Dominguez, Sandra Engel, Yvette Gonzales, Jill Martinez, Daniel Ramczyk, Christine Eve Rodriguez, Frank Sedillo, Renee Torres, Victor Valdez and Courtney Bryn Weaks.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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