Behind the bench

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After more than two decades presiding in the 13th Judicial District Court, Judge William “Bill” Sanchez will soon hang up his robe and put down his gavel when he retires at the end of February.

Submitted photo: District Court William Sanchez, who will officially retire at the end of the month, is the longest serving judge in Valencia County in recent history.

Sanchez, who was first elected in 1992, says he’s proud to leave the bench knowing he has a good reputation.

“I wanted to make my family and friends proud that I did a good job,” said Sanchez. “The last thing I wanted to do is leave the bench in disgrace and embarrass my family. I think I’ve made them proud and I hope I’ve made the community proud.”

Sanchez has been planning his retirement for the past six months or so, and because he turns 60 later this month, he said his retirement package will be better than if he retired last year.

But the tragic death of his brother, Danny, less than two weeks ago, convinced him even more that it was the right time to retire.

Danny Sanchez, 51, was killed in an alleged DWI-related motorcycle collision on Jan. 25. The judge’s niece, 11-year-old, Magen, who was a passenger, was critically injured in the crash.

The man police say is responsible for the crash, 27-year-old Jacob Williams, was sentenced by Judge Sanchez in 2008 for killing a motorcycle rider and injuring the victim’s passenger.

“It was just coincidental that this tragic event happened to me and my family, but it’s probably now another reason why I want to leave,” Sanchez said. “I’m not sure if I can look at DWI (cases) the same way again. And if there’s any perception of bias, judges have to recuse themselves.

Sanchez said throughout his 21-year career as a judge, he has taken DWI offenses very seriously, always looking out for the safety of the public.

“It’s just a shame that something like this ended up happening to me and my family,” Sanchez said.

As he looks back on his career, the judge says he’s leaving still at the top of his game, confident that he’s done his duty and has been fair in all of the decisions he’s made.

“I don’t want to leave with the impression that I’m burned out,” he said. “I want to leave while I still like doing it — I want to leave knowing that I did a good job.”

Sanchez, born and raised in Belen, graduated from Belen High School in 1972, received his undergraduate degree in business administration from UNM in 1976 and graduated from law school in 1980.

He said he decided to become an attorney after his former brother-in-law, Tom Esquibel, a Los Lunas lawyer, prompted him to apply to law school. But it was what attorneys were able to do that intrigued him about the profession.

“They’re so powerful, whether they’re representing someone in a criminal case, representing someone in a civil case or representing the government,” Sanchez said of attorneys. “They have a lot of power and influence in our country and I admired the legal profession so I thought I’d give it a try. I have to say that it’s served me well.”

After passing the bar exam, Sanchez began his law career in October 1980 as an assistant district attorney in Bernalillo County, a position he says helped him gain a lot of courtroom experience. Three years later, Sanchez established a solo law practice in Los Lunas, where he practiced a variety of law, including a little public defender work, a lot of domestic relations and childrens’ court cases, worker’s compensation and personal injury cases.

Several years later, he partnered up with three other local attorneys, including Esquibel, Louis Valencia and Michael Griego, and opened another law practice in Los Lunas.

But after District Judge Tibo Chavez died in November 1991, Sanchez decided he’d throw his hat into the ring, along with about 12 other lawyers, and applied for the position.

“I was kind of the dark horse,” he said. “No one was talking about William Sanchez.”

Although Sanchez’s name, along with the name of the late Raul Sedillo, were sent up the governor, Sanchez didn’t get the appointment. But a few months later, Sanchez declared his candidacy for the Democratic party primary, ultimately winning over Sedillo by a landslide.

“I won in all three counties by 61 percent, which, at that time, was unheard of against the governor’s appointee,” Sanchez remembers. “I kind of kept the system in check by running against an appointee.”

Because Sanchez had no Republican opposition in the general election, he took the bench a month later, when the election was certified.

While he can’t recall that very first case he presided over, Sanchez does remember the enthusiasm and energy he had as one of the three youngest judges at the time.

“I was very energetic back then,” he said laughing. “I’m still energetic, but not like I was at 38. I went in with a mindset that this is something I have to do and perform well. I went in with some determination and confidence that I could do it and that I would do what was necessary. I just took the bull by the horns and dove right into it.”

During his early years on the bench, before the district had a domestic violence commissioner or a domestic relations division, he would hear everything from domestic violence cases, children’s court cases along with his normal criminal and civil case load.

“It was very, very busy my first few years,” he says. “It remained busy, but it was a little more manageable after we got our commissioner and we were able to get our domestic relations division.”

When asked what he’s most proud of during his tenure on the bench, Sanchez points to two accomplishments — successfully spearheading the campaign to build a new courthouse and establishing an adult drug court in Valencia County.

“We were bursting at the seams,” Sanchez said of the old courthouse. “The clerks office was so small that they were staring at each other. There was absolutely no room for expansion and (retired) Judge (John) Pope had his courtroom in a portable building.”

He recalled security was another big issue at the old courthouse, saying he was a “sitting duck” for the 15 years he was there.

“I would walk each morning from my parking space in front of the courthouse and up the stairs,” he said. “If I had some disgruntled litigant in the parking lot, they could have very easily taken care of matters. I was very fortunate nothing every happened.”

Thrilled when the voters approved the bond, Sanchez, from his third-floor chambers, said the county now has a courthouse that has room to grow and is a building that everyone should be proud of.

“It’s a gem of a building that will serve this community for a long time,” he said.

Sanchez said the adult drug court program is also an accomplishment he’s proud to say he started. The 12-month-long probation program is for offenders who are ordered into the program by either a judge or the state probation department.

“They’re required to go through intense counseling … usually submit to a random (urine analysis) at least twice a week and then they see me every two weeks, when we check the status of their case, see how they’re doing and see what’s transpired over the past two weeks,” Sanchez said.

With a success rate of between 70 to 80 percent, Sanchez credits most of the success to Donald Garley and Ben Rocco, the program’s managers.

“We strive for 100 percent, but that’s never going to happen with drug addiction,” he said. “When they leave, they have the tools to kick that addiction. It’s left up to them at that point. There may be a bump in the road, but they know that they can do it.”

While there are both criminal and civil cases he will always remember, Sanchez said he believes he’s done his best making fair decisions for both sides. But it’s the critics, he says, that simply will never understand his judicial conclusions.

“You end up hearing criticism of judges when we make decisions and that’s one of the things that’s a little bit bothersome to us judges because a lot of people criticize our decisions from what they read in the newspaper,” he said. “Unless that person is in court and able to listen to all the facts and all the circumstances, then it’s one of those things that they need to be mindful of — that we’ve heard all the facts of the case.

“Sometimes we make decisions on a case that they don’t necessarily agree with, but if they had the same information we had, and if they understood the law and what we’re limited with, they wouldn’t be so critical.”

As he prepares to retire, Sanchez says while he’ll miss his jury trials and the people he works with at the courthouse, he says he’s going to miss serving the county he’s called home for his entire life.

“It’s almost hard to leave that responsibility behind because I’m part of this community,” he said.

And when asked what he won’t miss about being a judge, Sanchez said he won’t miss criminal defendants who return to his court over and over again on probation violations.

“It seems like we judges can keep on scolding defendants up and down, but they keep coming back,” he said. “I hate to say it, but they’re like cockroaches: you shoo them away and you send them off and you turn on the light and they’re back. They just don’t learn their lesson.”

Even though Sanchez is officially retiring at the end of the month, he will still be seen around the courthouse acting as a pro tem judge a few days a week until Gov. Susana Martinez appoints a new judge. The new appointee will take over the domestic relations division docket from Judge James Lawrence Sanchez, who will then take over the retiring judge’s case load.

But after he fully retires, Sanchez hopes to do settlement facilitations and mediations either out of his home or from a rented office space in Los Lunas.

“I’m hoping to spend a lot of time with my family — my son, Kevin, and mom, Flora, my brothers and especially my wife, Marisela, who has always been supportive and always stood by my side in all my professional work.

“I’m also hoping to improve my golf game,” he joked. “If I have a case that settles, I’ll go and play, but that’s once, maybe twice a month,” Sanchez said. “Now, hopefully a couple of days a week.”


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