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High court names guardianship panel

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday appointed a 16-member commission to study the system in which guardians and conservators are appointed in hundreds of cases each year to handle the affairs of incapacitated adults.

The commission includes judges, current and former lawmakers, governor’s representatives, industry officials and family members.

The Supreme Court also directed the commission to hold hearings to gather public input. Retired state District Judge Wendy York of Albuquerque will chair the commission, which is charged with recommending system improvements if needed.

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The mostly secret court process of appointing guardians and conservators – who are family members in some cases and for-profit companies in others – has moved into the public arena in recent months with an ongoing investigation by the Journal and a two-hour town hall in Albuquerque last month that drew a capacity live audience of about 90 people with the discussion broadcast live over KANW-FM, 89.1.

An estimated 6,000 guardianship or conservatorship cases, some decades old, are pending in Bernalillo County District Court alone. Statewide, there are no firm totals of the number of pending cases, but some court officials have estimated there could be another 6,000 people under a guardianship or conservatorship around the state.

Critics say the system is excessively secretive and there are inadequate checks on potential abuse by guardians and conservators, some of whom are for-profit companies appointed by the court. The guardian industry generally attributes those complaints to disgruntled family members.

After an initial hearing, judges who appoint guardians or conservators at the request of a petitioner rely mostly on annual reports from the guardians and conservators themselves to decide whether the arrangement is still needed and to ensure abuses aren’t occurring. The public isn’t allowed to view those reports.

The Supreme Court, in its order signed Thursday, tasked the commission with studying the “operation and structure” of the adult guardianship system,” while gathering information from the public “as it determines helpful.” The group is also to review the facts and law relating to the operation of the current system.

The commission has until Oct. 1 to make an initial status report to the Supreme Court and submit other interim and final reports as needed.

But the order says the commission shall submit its findings and recommendations to the Supreme Court “without undue delay,” including any recommendations for changes in court rules, statutes, administrative practices, additional resources “or any other proposals that may reasonably improve the guardianship system in New Mexico.”

Commission members are:

  • York, who served as a state district judge in Albuquerque from 1997 to 2005 and has worked for the past 12 years as a mediator in cases that include disputes involving family members, protected persons and guardianship organizations.
  • State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, a longtime advocate of guardianship reform.
  • Former state Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored legislation last year for changes in the guardianship system.
  • Second Judicial District Judge Nancy J. Franchini, who has participated in the Bernalillo County-based court’s elder and disability initiative, which for the past two years has been performing spot checks to ensure the welfare of those under guardianships in the county.
  • Patricia Galindo, commission vice chairwoman, a staff attorney for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, specializing in issues involving guardians and conservators.
  • District Judge Dustin Hunter of Roswell, who before joining the court in 2016 had a law practice that involved guardianship and domestic relations cases.
  • District Judge Jarod Hofacket of Deming, who previously had a law practice in which he represented family members who have petitioned courts to become guardians or conservators. He has also served as a guardian ad litem in such cases.
  • Attorneys Jill Johnson Vigil of Las Cruces and Gaelle McConnell of Albuquerque, who have law practices that include guardianship and guardian ad litem representation.
  • Patricia Stelzner, a retired attorney who co-founded the Senior Citizens’ Law Office, and who has represented clients in guardianship cases.
  • Tim Gardner, legal director of Disability Rights New Mexico, a nonprofit group that promotes and protects the rights of people with disabilities.
  • Dr. Samuel Roll, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, who has been a professor of psychiatry off and on since 1980.
  • Jorja Armijo-Brasher, director of the city of Albuquerque’s Department of Senior Affairs.
  • Leslie Porter, deputy director of policy for Gov. Susana Martinez who oversees legislation and policy issues involving the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
  • Stephen Clampett, assistant general counsel to Martinez who works on legal issues and legislation affecting the state aging department.
  • Emily Darnell-Nuñez, a Corrales early childhood education training and development consultant whose mother was involved in a contested guardianship.

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