Hospital issue to be heard by new judge

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What was supposed to be a straight-forward hearing in the ongoing legal battle over a hospital in Valencia County ended with the chief judge of the 13th Judicial District disqualifying the entire district from hearing arguments.

When Chief Judge Louis P. McDonald took the bench in his Bernalillo courtroom Thursday morning, he told the attorneys a possible conflict of interest for the district had come to his attention.

"I know the hospital has been an issue for several years. A sitting district court judge, Judge James Lawrence Sanchez, represented parties in previous litigation about the same hospital," McDonald said. "That may create a conflict of interest for the district. I wanted to disclose that."

After a brief recess to discuss the issue, attorneys representing the village of Los Lunas, city of Belen and Valencia County expressed their confidence in the court's ability to fairly and impartially render a decision on the motion to dismiss scheduled for that day.

The county and Belen signed a contract last year, agreeing to convey the hospital mill levy funds to a provider of the city's choice to build and operate a hospital.

Los Lunas then filed a lawsuit, claiming the county could not abdicate it's authority by allowing Belen to choose the provider the county commission would eventually contract with. The county and Belen then filed a motion to dismiss.

McDonald said the situation with Judge Sanchez may have "the appearance of impropriety and conflict." He asked if any of the current parties were involved in the case Sanchez argued when he was an attorney.

The Valencia County Commission was a party in the previous litigation and was sued over the appropriate use of the property tax being collected for the hospital.

After a pause, Larry Guggino, attorney for Los Lunas, said there was a separate motion to intervene before the court that was not part of Thursday's proceedings.

"There may be some of the same people involved in that," Guggino said.

Belen attorney Charles Rennick said the intervener filing shows no counsel of record and doesn't have a signature on the filing with the district court clerk.

"There are several signature pages with petition signatures that I believe were collected in public places," Rennick said. "There are 140 names, but no lead person and no council. This is going to be a complex procedural matter."

In September, nearly 140 Valencia County taxpayers filed a motion to make themselves part of the latest hospital lawsuit.

In the motion to intervene, the signers argue that as residents and taxpayers, they have an interest in how the commissioners vote and whether the vote is valid, when it comes to spending the hospital mill levy funds.

Guggino said he didn't want to put the court in a position of issuing an order on Thursday's motion to dismiss only to recuse itself if a connection was found between the 140 interveners and Sanchez' previous clients.

"The members of the public should not be in the position to disqualify a judge just by filing something with the (district court) clerk," Rennick argued.

He continued, saying he was informed that morning that Belen has signed a contract with Ameris to build and operate a hospital.

"Once the contact is signed, a schedule kicks in," he said. "It's a three-year schedule, so it's not imminent, but it does start."

Apologizing to the attorneys, the elected officials and administrators who made the trek to Bernalillo for the hearing, McDonald decided to disqualify himself and the entire 13th Judicial District from presiding over the case.

"There is a potential conflict with the motion to intervene. But for that, I would go forward," the judge said. "It is entirely possible several of the people previously represented by Judge Sanchez are part of that motion. I apologize to the attorneys. They spent a lot of time on the briefs; they were well written and fun to read. I apologize for the delay but I think in the long run, this will expedite the matter."

The New Mexico Supreme Court has 10 days to designate a judge. McDonald said he would ask the process be expedited.

After the judge's decision, Commissioner Mary Andersen said the delay was unfortunate.

"We need this issue settled, but the judge might be correct that this is faster in the long run," Andersen said.

Commission Chairman Charles Eaton said it was obvious the filing to intervene was a big concern for the judge.

"Hopefully this can be expedited," Eaton said, "and get this resolved as soon as possible."

Belen Mayor Rudy Jaramillo also called the delay unfortunate, saying they all needed to "look to the next step and move forward."

Village Administrator Greg Martin said the village really could not comment on the judge's decision to disqualify himself and the district.

"That's his prerogative and we respect that," Martin said. "We just have to wait a little longer to have another judge hear the case."


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