ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories previewing contested judicial races
Second District Judge Judith Nakamura is an unabashed multitasker.
“I’m better doing 20 different things at once than one,” she says. “I don’t know if my brain is just wired that way or what.” But at least since her days as Cibola High School class president, that’s how it’s been.
Nakamura, known as a tough sentencing judge and one willing to reject plea bargains she believes to be too lenient, moved to the 2nd Judicial District Court in January after making the short list from the Judicial Nominating Commission for a vacancy and being appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Prior to that, she had spent 15 years at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court, the state’s busiest court, including more than a decade as its chief.
Once sworn in, Nakamura immediately put in place the strict scheduling orders she had used in Metro Court, keeping cases moving but not always winning kudos from attorneys who appear before her. Now, the Republican judge is seeking to keep her seat in a partisan race in which she is being challenged by Democratic former state Sen. John Grubesic.
Grubesic, too, went through the Judicial Nominating Commission twice over the past two years, and twice made the short list for a Metro Court seat. But he failed to get the nod from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez despite his reputation as a frequent critic of her predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.
“I understand her motivations for her not appointing me, and I decided to take destiny in my own hands,” he says.
Grubesic decided that if he were to launch a campaign, he would rather be running for district court than metro.
Grubesic says he got into politics after being inspired by a walk around the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and seeing the reminders about equality.
“Equality still means something in a courtroom,” he says. “Everybody is on the same footing.”
Grubesic served one term in the state Senate. During that time, he says he carried a major piece of ethics legislation that bans legislators from taking gifts from lobbyists.
It wasn’t easy to get it through, either, he says.
Early in his term as a senator representing a Santa Fe district, he had an accident in which he overturned his SUV on his way home. News reports from the time say he was untruthful and cursed at police who tried to question him at his home, where he had walked after the rollover.
The incident ultimately ended with a careless driving plea and a $175 fine, but not without criticism for his behavior.
Grubesic also had run-ins with Richardson, whom he once called a “flabby king” on the Senate floor.
Ultimately, Grubesic opted not to seek re-election. He and his wife, Dana, also an attorney, eventually moved to Albuquerque.
Grubesic says one of the things he learned from the intense media attention to the 2005 rollover and its aftermath was humility, a quality he would like to bring to the bench should he be elected.
“I learned a very valuable lesson,” he says. “I learned that people make mistakes, and it taught me … to be humble and to overcome problems I had.” He learned to consider opposing views, for one thing, he says.
Grubesic says his varied background litigating civil enforcement as an assistant attorney general and handling criminal defense and commercial litigation would serve him well as a judge. From Mora County ranchers – he has served as the Mora County attorney – to scared teenagers and senior citizens having landlord problems, he says, “I ran into different situations and found different solutions.”
He also has advised boards, including the Museum of New Mexico and the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy.
Grubesic says the court should look for alternatives to incarceration, especially in cases that do not involve violent crime – mostly drug or alcohol cases. And the court should devote attention to defendants with mental health issues who appear before them, he says.
“A judge has tremendous power to bring about change,” he says. “You have to look at it on a case by case basis.”
Incarceration is appropriate in some cases, he says, but “it’s important to find resources where people can put their lives back together … I don’t think we do a good job with that in Albuquerque.”
Nakamura, meanwhile, is considered very efficient at moving her cases to trial but also is perceived as being exceptionally tough at sentencing.
“I think I’m fair on sentencing,” she says, “and if that translates to ‘hard,’ I can’t control that.”
She has a high rate of excusals by attorneys, particularly by the defense bar. In New Mexico, each party is allowed to disqualify one judge without stating a reason.
Dana Grubesic recently entered an appearance in a case that Nakamura had been pushing hard to bring to trial for months, and Nakamura recused herself. Grubesic says he wasn’t involved in his wife’s decision to enter the case.
Nakamura’s nervous energy and concern about doing the right thing sometimes make her jump out of bed at night, she says.
She agrees that prison isn’t always appropriate but says she’s been to “sentencing panels” during judicial education events where career criminals talk about “conning a judge.” Sometimes, she says, a taste of life behind bars is enough to provide an impetus for a defendant to change his or her behavior.
Nakamura says that when the DWI Resource Center conducted studies of recidivism, she had one of the lowest rates of defendants who reoffend.
“I’ve never lightly put anyone in confinement,” she says.
Nakamura also has a reputation of “blowing up” plea agreements negotiated between prosecution and defense. She uses a different terminology but says she’s not afraid to turn down plea deals she believes are inappropriate – mostly in violent crimes. She insists on paying equal attention to “throwaway” or low-level prosecutions.
“You have to work hard to have the attributes of a judge,” she says. “I work hard to be respectful of attorneys, the parties, my colleagues. I take stuff home (to review) every night.”