District Court judicial candidates discuss qualifications

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It was a civil question-and-answer session from the candidates vying for the 13th Judicial District Court judgeship last Wednesday evening.

Both Judge James Lawrence Sanchez, the Republican candidate, and Democrat LaDonna Giron attended the hour-long event.

LaDonna Giron Democrat

The forum, sponsored by the Valencia County Bar Association, was attended by about 40 people and was run by local historian and author, John Taylor, of Peralta.

Before the forum began, Taylor asked the audience for a bit of restraint and to not react during the candidates’ responses.

Taylor also noted that while the candidates would not be taking questions from the audience, attendees were more than welcome to stay and speak to them one-on-one after the forum.

A man in the audience asked why there were no questions allowed “from citizens,” and Taylor said public input had already been solicited for the questions being posed that night.

Both candidates were given three minutes for an opening statement.

In accordance with a coin toss before the forum, Sanchez went first. A Belen resident, Sanchez could be considered the incumbent in this race since he was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in May, following the resignation and retirement of John W. Pope.

Sanchez serves as the family court judge.

James Sanchez Republican

Giron earned her place on the ballot by gathering enough signatures of district voters on nominating petitions for the primary election after Pope’s resignation.

Sanchez said the forum was a “wonderful opportunity to show the two candidates who are up for election.” A graduate of Belen High School, New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico, Sanchez said he began his law career with the big firms in Albuquerque in order to advance his education.

“I didn’t want anyone to suffer from my lack of experience,” Sanchez said.

After he made partner with Sutin, Thayer and Brown, Sanchez said he “knew I could do it on my own and quit two weeks later.”

He came home to Valencia County and began practicing law with fellow attorney Pedro Rael.

“Being a judge is a very difficult position,” Sanchez said. “Initially, I didn’t want to, but people kept saying I should. I was appointed by the governor and honored to be chosen to be placed on the ballot by my party at our convention.”

A Los Lunas native and product of the Los Lunas Schools system, Giron said her community prepared her well to pursue a college education and legal career.

“I have been able to help a lot of people and I would like to take this opportunity to serve my community and give back,” Giron said.

As single mom while in college and then law school, and an attorney for 12 years, Giron said she has had the opportunity to set standards very high for her two young daughters as well as other mothers and single parents who want to pursue higher education and a career in law.

“I have the experience and education to serve as judge and a demonstrated commitment to my profession,” Giron said.

As a member of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association, Giron said she was involved with efforts to raise scholarship funds, so others would have the same opportunities she did.

“Whether practicing as a public defender — sometimes someone who was mentally ill, homeless or both — or as a prosecutor here in Valencia County, helping victims of crime and helping law enforcement prosecute cases, I have always taken my job seriously,” Giron said. “There is a great deal of public trust placed on lawyers and judges. And I will honorably and ethically serve my community that has given so much.”

Taylor then asked six questions, alternating between candidates so each had the opportunity to answer first. They were both given the opportunity for a one-minute rebuttal to each others’ responses, but neither candidate took the privilege.

1. How would each of you manage conflicts of interest, given that you each have strong family ties in Valencia County?

Sanchez said the judicial code of ethics is very clear on conflicts of interest.

“Before I sit a case, I always ask myself, ‘Do I have any bias, either positive or negative on the outcome of this case?’ If I feel I can’t be fair, I don’t take a case,” he said.

Sanchez said during his time on the bench, he has recused himself because he felt there was a possible conflict of interest.

“If you feel like you’re rooting for them or against them, you just can’t take the case,” he said. “It’s a gut reaction as well as following the code of judicial conduct. You just have to smell out cases you shouldn’t sit on.”

Giron agreed with Sanchez’s response, saying as attorneys who practice law, they become mindful of potential conflicts in their own practices.

“You have a good client list and make sure you don’t represent someone you’ve opposed before, or at least make sure to get consent,” she said. “If a judge applies the same rules of conduct, like Mr. Sanchez said, you can screen your cases and make sure you wouldn’t sit a case where there was the appearance of a conflict.

“The code of judicial conduct encourages us to go above and beyond, not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of law, and I’m sure my opponent would do the same.”

2. How would you describe the temperament you expect of a judge? Do you believe you have that temperament?

When she was new to the prosecutor’s office, Giron said her supervisors immediately realized she had a calming way about her and would often ask her to speak with clients who were upset.

Another good quality to a judge’s temperament, she said, is the ability to show respect for both parties.

“I know I can show parties the respect that everyone deserves, whether they are a pro se litigant or a hot shot lawyer from one of New Mexico’s best firms,” Giron said.

Sanchez said he had been before enough judges to know the difference between the ones that makes an attorney’s stomach hurt and the ones that makes people comfortable.

“One who is not going to yell at you, belittle you, give both sides respect,” he said. “In my nature, I believe all of us were created in the same image and are entitled to basic respect and dignity.

“I feel people feel comfortable in front of me. We all live in glass houses and have to be reasonable,” he said. “It’s not a judge’s job to sit on the bench as a dictator, but as a problem solver. That’s why people come to us.”

3. This position tends to see the most pro se (self represented) parties. What do you conceive to be the role of a judge with pro se parties, especially when the other side is represented?

When both parties are pro se, Sanchez said the judge’s role is to “try and pull as much evidence out of them as you can,” while adhering to the rules of evidence.

“You try to educate them so they come with more than just their hands on the table,” he said. “When one side comes with an attorney, the same rules of evidence still apply. But you make sure the other side doesn’t take advantage of a pro se litigant’s naivety. You gather facts from both sides and rely on the law to give everyone a fair day in court.”

Giron said she again agreed with Sanchez, reiterating that the rules of evidence and procedure apply the same way to a pro se litigant as they do to an attorney.

“You have to make sure not to let your emotions get the best of you and favor the pro se litigant and empathize, because they are struggling,” she said. “The judge’s role is specifically to remain neutral.”

As an attorney, Giron said she had been appointed as stand by council for pro se litigants to advise them in criminal cases and would be willing as a judge to allow that in her court.

“So long as they were not practicing law without a license, I would be willing to let (a pro se litigant) have an advocate or a friend with them, to help them gather their thoughts,” she said.

4. Briefly describe the most serious ethical challenge you have faced as an attorney, and how did you respond?

Giron once defended a man charged with embezzlement and other economic crimes. During the course of the trial, the man was not showing up for hearings, making excuses at the last minute.

“I knew he was avoiding court, but it’s part of my duty to not unduly delay cases nor be dishonest with the court,” she said. “But I also had a strong loyalty to my client.”

After consulting with a senior attorney, Giron said she found a way she could withdraw from the case without the court being angry with her client.

While he was involved in a personal injury case, Sanchez said he found out his client had lied about the severity of his condition.

“He disclosed to me in a way I knew the other side would never know about,” he said. “It was not fair because my client testified in a deposition and was ready to go testify in trial. In situations like that, you council them you can’t go forward on that lie and ask them to give you the authority to disclose and resolve the matter on what the actual causes were in the accident.”

When his client didn’t agree to the disclosure, Sanchez said all he could do was move to withdraw.

“I still had a duty to not disclose confidential information, and that is very important because all we have is trust, but at the same time, I can’t lie to the court.”

5. Most attorneys have experienced a judge berating, criticizing or even yelling at them or another attorney in open court. Have you ever experienced this, and how do you believe that judge could have handled the situation better?

Sanchez said that hadn’t happened to him, but he had seen it happen to other attorneys.

“It may be impossible for some personalities that have a temper, a bully mentality that the only way is to not be who they are,” he said. “Some personalities are not good for this position because of their personalities. I’ve been before some crusty, salty judges and gotten stares that felt like a blow.

“If you treat this job like an accomplishment, a goal, and just like the power and title, rather than the service to the community, you lose perspective,” Sanchez said.

Giron said she has been the witness to a “pretty high profile berating” in which the judge lost her job.

“She really lost her cool. She threatened to put an attorney in jail; it was embarrassing for her,” Giron said. “I was embarrassed for her as an attorney sitting in her courtroom.

“I thought, how sad. I saw how hard she had worked to become a judge and you could see her career unraveling right there,” she said. “If she was that upset that the attorney was not prepared to proceed, I feel if she was that upset, she probably should have taken a recess, collected her thoughts and come back with a better way to handle the situation.”

6. How have you served your community in your role as a lawyer, and how would you continue to do so on or off the bench?

If she does not win the seat, Giron said she would continue practicing law and participating in the causes she has always been active in, such as helping new attorneys with their continuing education, being a mock trial instructor and serving on the scholarship committee for the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association.

Sanchez said an attorney cannot live in a community and “have it be all about money. There has to be a place for no-fee work in a community.”

If someone calls him with a quick question, they wouldn’t get a bill, Sanchez said.

With few exceptions, he helps clients with preparations for divorce court free of charge.

“I think I did get ice cream a couple of times,” he said.

In her closing statement, Giron congratulated Sanchez on his appointment, saying it must have been a very proud moment for him and his family.

“I just want to once again make my case to the voters that I am a qualified person and have consistently served in the area of public interest law,” she said. “If I am elected, I will continue that opportunity to serve the public in the court room as a judge.

“As a public defender, prosecutor and as the owner of my own firm, my passion has always been public interest law,” Giron said. “I am asking you, if you think I can serve honestly and with integrity, to vote for me.”

In his practice in the civil arena, Sanchez said he has handled cases of a vast breadth and scope in his 25 years of experience.

“I have ruled on every hearing from bench, even the difficult decisions. I have the courage to look people in they eye and say why I am ruling a certain way,” he said. “I have had people I’ve ruled against thank me for the courtesy.

“When I was appointed, I took the ball and ran, I move my docket well,” Sanchez said. “I think 25 years of experience speaks loudest as to who you should be voting for.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.