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Starting mental health court is highlight of retiring Judge Fitzwater’s career

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Metropolitan Court Judge Kevin Fitzwater’s route from Louisville, Ky., to New Mexico was direct if unexpected.

The ROTC program at the University of Louisville closed, and at age 17 he got on a plane and flew to Albuquerque in 1976 to attend the University of New Mexico.

When he disembarked in Albuquerque, he says, he “wondered where the town was,” but the place grew on him. Soon it became home base for professional careers that wrap up when he retires from Metro Court on July 31.

“I’ve had two fairly stressful careers,” he said. “This is a very high-volume, stressful job, and it’s time.”

As a criminal judge, the stress comes from being mindful that a person can lose his or her liberty, and that record will trail them for life, “so you have to give it every possible thought to try to do the right thing.”

As a civil judge, he’s often dealing with landlord/tenant or breach-of-contract disputes in which the parties are acting as their own lawyers and are far from knowledgeable about rules of procedure.

“You have to stop and say, ‘This is the most important thing in their life today,'” he said.

His first career was as an officer in the Marines, active duty for 12 years and reserves for another 18. He went to the University of New Mexico School of Law as one of four Marines in the country picked that year to have their legal education underwritten by that service branch. He graduated in 1992.

Fitzwater did a “payback” tour in the Far East that took him to the Philippines, Guam and Okinawa, defending military personnel on charges ranging from petty larceny to murder at proceedings up to and including 30-40 court-martials.

Then it was back to Albuquerque and four years at the District Attorney’s Office, where one of his jobs was handling competency hearings. That gave him background for what he regards as his crowning achievement in the judicial arena – creation of the first mental health court in the state and one of a few in the nation at the time.

In 1996, he ran for Metro Court as a Republican and was defeated by Democrat Victoria Grant. The next year, Gov. Gary Johnson appointed him and he survived the general election, going on to finish 18 years on the bench, almost all of it in the criminal division.

He had taken over handling competency hearings in Metro Court when a colleague moved to District Court, and Fitzwater says he realized more than ever that “the system is woefully inadequate.”

The law says a person can’t go to trial if they aren’t competent, and Fitzwater recalls people who had no homes and were estranged from their families because of problems related to their illnesses.

When a couple of probation officers came to him and described a program in Miami-Dade County for people in the criminal justice system who were suffering from mental illness, Fitzwater was interested. But there was no money.

The probation officers kept at it, and by 2002 the program opened its doors in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court.

“Essentially, it’s getting the defense and the prosecution and the judge to give up some power for a result,” he said.

Probation works with caregivers, therapists and families to ensure that people who have ended up in court don’t get there again because they’ve fallen through the cracks.

“You get all the stakeholders in it,” he said, “and maybe the answer is not a conviction.

“It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve done in law,” Fitzwater said, especially when a former defendant comes in to tell him about a success – “Hey judge, I got my kids back.”

“You go home and say, ‘I did something today,’ ” he said.

In one of his first mental health court cases, he recalls a woman crying after being told about what he calls “the stick part,” the requirements for taking meds and reporting to probation, in return for a break in sentencing.

“It’s the first time in my life I thought I had a chance,” he remembers her saying.

The average recidivism rate in courts is 40 percent, he said, but in specialty courts it drops to about 8 percent.

“You always have to do it on top of your regular workload. It’s considered too touchy-feely (by some) until they see how well it works. Which is why a former Marine and prosecutor gets listened to,” he said.

After Fitzwater had run it for a decade, Metro Judge Linda Rogers stepped up to take over mental health court.

Fitzwater’s work on the issue led to his being recruited for a national Judges Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative and investigation of places like Seattle, where creative solutions have significantly reduced the rate of re-offending.

Next, he’s headed off to play with his grandkids, Ellie and Lincoln, both under a year old.

And maybe learn to play golf.

It’s all a long way from the “piloting” he did for a part-time summer farm job in the early ’70s in Louisville.

That was the term used for passing shovels full of droppings from Kentucky Derby stars Riva Ridge and Secretariat to the next guy in the line, kind of like a bucket brigade.

“It’s what made me realize I wanted to do something else,” he said.