High court suspends VC probate judge

........................................................................................................................................................................................

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Valencia County was without a probate judge.

An order from the New Mexico Supreme Court filed that day granted a petition for the immediate, temporary suspension of Valencia County Probate Judge Jaime J. Baca.

Probate Judge Jaime Baca Suspended by Supreme Court

According to the order, the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission petitioned the high court for Baca’s suspension. He was elected to the position in 2010.

The commission petition the court for Baca’s suspension “pending completion of the state’s prosecution of the pending criminal complaint …” and the completion of commission’s own investigation.

The criminal complaint is in reference to Baca’s arrest in December after an altercation with his 34-year-old girlfriend, Jeri Ortega. The judge is charged with battery on a household member, criminal damage to property and interference with communications, all misdemeanor violations.

“(Baca) is alleged to have committed acts that may constitute willful misconduct in office,” the petition reads.

The petition goes on to say the commission is conducting an investigation into Baca’s conduct.

A non-jury trial has been set in the matter for 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 5, before Magistrate John Sanchez in Los Lunas.

When contacted by the News-Bulletin, Baca declined to comment on the suspension.

Included in the public documents regarding the suspension is a response to the commission’s petition from Baca. In it, he writes, “… a suspension before due process would be tenuous; I have been accused of committing a crime, not proven to be guilty.”

Included in his response was an affidavit of non-prosecution from Ortega, which requests that all charges be dropped and the investigation be terminated.

The Supreme Court order says the court shall defer to Valencia County commissioners to decide whether Baca will continue to be paid during his suspension.

It goes on to advise the commission that the court’s general policy is to allow a judge who is temporarily suspended to continue receiving pay for the first 90 days, with no pay thereafter.

Valencia County attorney Dave Pato said after reviewing state statute, the commission won’t be appointing a temporary judge to replace Baca while he is suspended.

“Section 10-4-1 sets forth a universe of what creates a vacancy. The temporary suspension of Judge Baca does not create a vacancy,” Pato said. “Since there was no vacancy created, the county commission cannot appoint.”

Section 10-3-3 of state statute allows county commissioners to appoint a replacement to a vacant county office, with the exception of the commission itself, in the event of “death, resignation or otherwise …”

Section 10-4-1 sets out the circumstances under which a vacancy can occur, which include, but are not limited to, death, removal from office, resignation or the expiration of the term.

None of the circumstances laid out in the statute specify a temporary suspension as a reason for the office to be considered vacant.

Pato said state statute directs that during a probate judges absence, all probate cases will be handled by district court judges.

In an interview with the News-Bulletin in December, New Mexico State Police Sgt. Damyan Brown said Baca, 31, and his girlfriend had left a party on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 21, when an argument ensued while they were driving on Calle de Jose in Rio Communities.

After parking on the side of the street, she left the vehicle and Baca followed her, throwing her down, causing a slight bruise to her forehead and a minor cut to her left knee.

Brown said after throwing his girlfriend to the ground, Baca took the cell phone she was using to call police and threw it in the street. Brown said the phone was run over and damaged by a passing vehicle.

Ortega was able to run to a residence on Calle de Jose and called police. When police arrived, the officer did find evidence that a battery was committed, but attempts to locate Baca were unsuccessful that night.

An arrest warrant was issued for Baca and he was arrested at 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at his house without incident, and was booked into the Valencia County Detention Center.

The judge was held on a $20,000 cash-only bond and was released to his father, Jimmy Baca, the next evening.


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