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U.S. attorney moves to federal judgeship in Las Cruces

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For three years, he led federal prosecutors in N.M.

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

It’s not too hard to see why now-retired U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman supported his onetime legislative aide Kenneth Gonzales for a vacancy on the federal court in New Mexico.

Gonzales, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico for the past three-plus years, has the same sort of quiet, thoughtful, modest demeanor as his mentor. He is a home-grown New Mexican to boot.

Gonzales, 48, grew up in Pojoaque and became intrigued by politics and law by a demanding but inspiring civics teacher at Pojoaque High School who suggested that Gonzales should become a lawyer. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college – the University of New Mexico – and went on to earn a law degree from the UNM School of Law. He clerked for Justice Joseph Baca on the New Mexico Supreme Court, worked in D.C. for Bingaman and became a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve before joining the U.S. Attorney Office in New Mexico.

Nominated by Bingaman and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, he was sworn in Friday to his lifetime job in the chambers of Chief Judge M. Christina Armijo surrounded by his family.

He starts work early Monday in Las Cruces, where he becomes the second district judge. Federal judges in New Mexico designated the judgeship to be in southern New Mexico, a move questioned by some in the legal community but which Gonzales sees as spot-on.

“When the court decided to move this district judge position from Santa Fe, my view was that it’s pretty much a no-brainer. The court needs a full-time district judge to complement what Judge Brack is doing,” Gonzales said in an interview with the Journal.

Noting that Judge Robert Brack in Las Cruces is the busiest federal district judge in the country by virtue of the unrelenting tide of immigration cases, Gonzales says his appointment will relieve some of the pressure on other judges who have been making regular trips to Las Cruces.

Although the Las Cruces court was set up primarily to handle immigration and narcotics cases, the criminal caseload has become more diverse. The mix now includes more violent crime, especially from the Mescalero Apache Reservation, white collar and other fraud cases from White Sands Missile Range and firearms cases.

“I’d like to take a little credit for that,” he said.

When he was appointed to head the U.S. Attorney Office, Gonzales decided to make a priority of Indian country violent crime, especially domestic violence.

“We have a 10 percent Native American population in New Mexico, and with a lot of felony offenses, we can’t just leave it to the district attorneys offices because they don’t have jurisdiction (on Indian lands),” he said. “We cannot leave it to someone else.”

The office has long prosecuted cases from New Mexico’s many tribes and pueblos, but Gonzales said he thought it could do better at getting victims to come forward – knowing that something would happen if they did.

“It takes better investigations, better prosecutions but also relationships we never had before or never fostered … between this office and tribes and pueblos. That’s an important part of what we’ve tried to do,” he said.

Gonzales created an Indian country crime section staffed with 10 line prosecutors and a victim advocate stationed in Crownpoint. It’s the only one of its kind in the country.

He set up more training events so that tribal agencies can more often take the lead in investigations.

He launched an initiative in crimes against women, with a special prosecutor loaned from the Pueblo of Laguna, David Adams, whose job is to prosecute domestic violence cases in native communities.

The positive reaction from the Native American community was evident at a Thursday night going away banquet and roast at which tribal leaders were among those offering tributes to Gonzales’ tenure.

Officials from Drug Enforcement, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Fish and Wildlife, environmental enforcement, district attorneys, sheriffs and others offered up testimonials that made clear their affection for the man leaving office.

Along with jokes and Photoshopped slides that mocked his long “chicken legs” that have propelled him through five Marine Corps marathons, acting U.S. Attorney Steve Yarbrough poked fun at Gonzales’ movie star smile, his immaculate style of dressing and his hair.

“He’s never had a bad hair day,” another speaker quipped.

Gonzales also takes pride in his focus on civil rights. Among cases his office has filed are prosecutions involving law enforcement and housing actions.

“We all know officers on the street or in a detention facility have very tough jobs, but they like everybody else are expected to comply with the rule of law,” he said. “So when we see abuses by people entrusted by the public to protect everyone, whether children in school or people they stop on the roadside, we have to act because it’s a violation of trust.”

He hopes his designated successor, Damon Martinez, will keep the focus.

Bound by rules about grand jury secrecy, he said he couldn’t give any details on the by-now public fact that an investigative grand jury looked into some of former Gov. Bill Richardson dealings but did not return an indictment.

Public corruption cases have been hindered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Jeffrey Skilling/Enron fraud case, which found the “theft of honest services” law unconstitutionally vague.

That “has had a huge impact on prosecutions,” Gonzales said. And there’s no legislative fix on the horizon.

“We still have things in our toolbox, but until we have a fix to that Skilling issue, we really have an even tougher job to get to the core of that public corruption. That’s a New Mexico problem but that’s a national problem,” he said.

For all the things he’s credited with doing, Gonzales said he feels like he’s leaving a lot undone as he moves to the bench.

“Decisiveness is one of the characteristics that transfers well from the executive to the judicial branch,” he said. “It’s a job qualification when it comes to making decisions that affect people’s lives in real and sometimes detrimental way. It takes a lot of thought and caution.”