Thursday, February 17, 2005
Court Suspends State District Judge Over DWI
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
The New Mexico Supreme Court suspended State District Judge Thomas Fitch on Wednesday, a day after the Socorro judge pleaded guilty to drunken driving and agreed to spend two days in jail.
The court, in a unanimous order, also told Fitch to return to the court in three months in order to demonstrate why he should not be removed from the bench permanently.
Fitch, the 7th Judicial District's chief judge, was charged with aggravated DWI after he wrecked a state-owned minivan in Santa Fe on Friday. It was 1 p.m. and Fitch had been on his way to a legislative hearing.
A large, nearly empty vodka bottle was found near the van, and Fitch admitted to drinking "about three ounces of vodka," according to police.
He registered 0.17 percent and 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, on a blood-alcohol test after the crash.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday afternoon denied Fitch's request that he be allowed to take a 90-day leave of absence to seek treatment for alcohol abuse and "to ensure that the confidence of the public is not impaired by a judge continuing to preside over court proceedings or even handling the administrative duties of a chief judge while these matters are pending."
Instead, the court said in a terse one-sentence order that Fitch be suspended immediately with pay for 90 days and that he appear on May 19 to make his case for returning to the bench.
The order was written by Chief Justice Richard C. Bosson, who only weeks ago delivered stern comments about alcohol abuse among the judiciary to the Legislature.
Bosson said the high court wanted to make it clear "there is zero tolerance, zero, concerning the use of illegal drugs or abuse of alcohol by members of the New Mexico judiciary."
"Simply put," Bosson said, "judges must lead lives that are above reproach, above even the suspicion of impropriety."
Fitch's predicament echoed that of W. John Brennan, who was the chief judge of the 2nd Judicial District when he was arrested for DWI and cocaine possession last May.
Brennan pleaded guilty, received a sentence of two days of house arrest and resigned.
In state District Court in Santa Fe on Tuesday, Fitch pleaded guilty, said he accepted responsibility for his actions, and received a common sentence for first-time offenders: a 90-day jail sentence with all but two days suspended.
Fitch must undergo alcohol screening and treatment, attend DWI school and a victim impact panel, and have an ignition interlock installed on his car, which is mandatory for aggravated DWI, according to The Associated Press.
The judge also was sentenced to 364 days of unsupervised probation and fined $100 for careless driving and $25 for the open container, the AP reported.
Fitch said in court Tuesday that he would serve his two days behind bars after completing a 30-day inpatient alcohol treatment program he planned to enter immediately.
Several public officials have called for the 62-year-old Fitch, who was named to the bench in 1995 by Gov. Gary Johnson, to resign. They include Gov. Bill Richardson, New Mexico Democratic Party chairman John Wertheim and state Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, state District Judge Kevin Sweazea will serve as acting chief judge of the 7th Judicial District.