“Wanted: Proven crimefighter.”
That should be the sign in the window of the Governor’s Office for the largest and busiest district attorney’s office in the state.
Second District Attorney Raúl Torrez, whose district is Bernalillo County, will step down sometime before he’s sworn in on Jan. 1 as New Mexico’s new attorney general. His four-year term as DA ends Dec. 31, 2024, meaning a successor needs to be named to fill that position for two years.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has the sole power to fill vacant DA positions. Senate confirmation isn’t needed. DAs are not subject to term limits and can therefore serve an unlimited time in office. The governor’s appointee will be only the third person to run the office in 22 years.
Applications are due Dec. 2. Minimum qualifications include a law degree from an accredited law school and seven years experience practicing law. That’s a pretty low bar for the top prosecutor in the state’s most populous and crime-ridden county.
Torrez, first elected DA in 2016 and again in 2020, had strong credentials as a DA candidate having been a former federal prosecutor and assistant New Mexico attorney general. And he inherited a mess, with 8,000 boxes of unlaunched felony case files lining hallways and rooms in the Steve Schiff Building when he took over the office in January 2017. It took a tremendous amount of work and leadership to clear that backlog; unfortunately, there is a new — albeit smaller — backlog due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Torrez took office, he increased grand jury capacity to draw down the felony case backlog, invested in technology to share crime data in real time, advocated to strengthen pretrial release rules to detain more serious violent offenders, and worked to mitigate secondary trauma on sexual assault and child abuse victims by aligning criminal procedure with national standards.
That record helped get him elected attorney general.
A group of 49 trial attorneys in the 2nd District DA’s Office said in a letter to the governor last week the next DA will face a “herculean job” of managing over a thousand cases set for trial in the first half of 2023. In their Nov. 18 letter, the trial attorneys say the job should go to someone who can immediately pick up where Torrez left off for the “safety and welfare of our community,” while suggesting three current deputy prosecutors in the office to replace Torrez.
The governor has a big decision to make. Whether the next DA should be from within or outside the office is debatable. The bottom line is the next DA needs strong prosecutorial and case management experience, a passion for fighting crime and an ability to work well with lawmakers.
Working with lawmakers is key to moving the criminal justice system forward.
There are currently 84 trial attorneys in the 2nd District DA’s Office, and that’s proven not to be enough. The office launches between 7,000 and 9,700 adult felony prosecutions per year. Our DAs and public defenders both need more state funding. It’s imperative for the state’s largest DA’s Office to clear its backlogs because crime victims and suspects deserve swift justice.
Politics should absolutely not play a role. The job should go to the most qualified candidate, not the most connected, because Bernalillo County must have a proven crimefighter to succeed Torrez.
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.