Otero retires after 11 years on the bench
Her love for the law won’t stop when she steps off the bench tomorrow for the very last time, but 13th Judicial District Court Judge Violet Otero says it’s time to hang up her robe and retire.
Otero was appointed to a newly-created domestic relations judgeship in 2003 by former Gov. Bill Richardson, and was elected to the position a year later. Now after nearly 11 years on the bench, she leaves confident that she’s done her best for the people of Valencia County.
After teaching in Los Lunas Schools for five years, Otero, at age 40, decided to go to law school because it was a good idea, and she thought the law was interesting. It ended up being the hardest thing she ever had to do.
“It’s very difficult because it teaches you to change your perspective on how you view everything — there are two sides to every story,” Otero says of law school. “And sometimes, for a person who has never had to look at both sides equally and fairly, that’s a challenge. Good lawyers should be able and have to address the weaknesses in their case before the other side does.”
But with a lot of hard work and support from her husband, Emelio, Otero made it through the University of New Mexico School of Law and began practicing, first as a public defender while doing contract work with CYFD, where she represented children and respondent parents. She also worked for Michael Sanchez as an associate.
After about three years, Otero decided to open her own law office, which, she said, was very difficult, so she shifted gears a bit and only did guardian-ad-litem work, which is acting as an advocate for children in various types of legal cases.
It was at that time that she found out about the new judgeship position in the district that would preside over domestic relation cases.
“I was very grateful to have been appointed,” Otero says. “It has been one of the best experiences of my life because the people you meet and the things you learn every single day is just amazing. I’ve never lost the ability to say, ‘I love coming to work every day.’”
Otero admits that there are very stressful days when she has to make those tough and important decisions, but she says it comes with the territory.
“I look at it that I am a public servant and I’m doing the best job she can,” she says.
Otero presided over the domestic relations docket for about nine years before she took over the criminal and civil case load when District Court Judge John Pope retired two years ago. In those first nine years, Otero heard neglect and abuse cases, divorces and other domestic relation cases.
She said those were the hardest cases to hear because Valencia County is at the top for filings per capita in the state.
“The cases here in Valencia County are serious cases,” she said. “The goal of CYFD is reunification. Sometimes the abuse is so bad, the hardest decision is to reunify children with their parents when they’ve met all their parameters and you still have that doubt.
“When there’s nothing for you to prevent you from returning the children home, but there’s that nagging doubt, which is almost always meth,” Otero says. “I worry about the children of those users, even if they’ve been clean for a while and they’re not on the radar of CYFD. It’s hard because you know the history and you sort of have to cross your fingers that they’re going to make it.”
During her nearly 11 years on the bench, Otero says the biggest thing she wanted to accomplish was to protect children and their rights. She says that desire came from having worked as a teacher and in child advocacy for so long.
The educator in her also helped her and those who came before her as well. The most important skill she possessed as a judge was having been a teacher.
“I felt I was educating people,” Otero says of her time on the bench. “I spent a lot of time trying to educate and enable people to parent properly. I want people who appear in my court to understand why I did what I did, and that’s why I tend to talk a lot, explain the process and the consequences.”
When Pope retired and Otero had an opportunity to take on his docket, she jumped at the chance. She said while she loved coming to work every day, she started to get burned out.
“I had too many cases for CYFD,” she said. “They weren’t adequately funded and weren’t able to meet their obligations in court. That was frustrating for me. You start thinking, ‘Why can’t this get fixed,’ and I couldn’t fix it from the bench,” she said.
“My ultimate goal was to do justice, but sometimes, the rules and law didn’t allow me to do that. It was an opportunity to do something different.”
As she gets ready to leave the 13th Judicial District Court for the last time, Otero says what she’ll miss most is simply the law.
“I’m going to miss the law — I love the law,” she says with a broad smile. “I’m going to miss hearing arguments and understanding how the law changes through case law, how the law changes legislatively. It’s a moving entity. To me, the law is alive because it’s being constantly changed and defined. I love that.”
She’ll also miss learning about the law. Otero says everyone, especially fellow judges, were willing to share their knowledge and spend time teaching her.
“That’s my favorite part of being a judge — the learning part,” she said. “I love reading cases and talking law with other judges. I don’t talk law in my private life, because it’s boring to people. All of the judges have been so gracious with their knowledge.”
While every day was different and every case had it’s own challenges, Otero said her method of self preservation is simple — exercise.
“I take very good care of myself. I generally go to the gym every day after work — no excuses,” she said. “The more tired I am emotionally, the more I need it. If I go home after a long, tiring day, I feel worse. I know I need that. That’s my time. That’s when I need it the most. That was non-negotiable to me. I realized how positive it was for me.”
As she prepares to retire, Otero has one piece of advice for the person who will replace her: Be prepared. She said the one thing that has given her confidence when she enters her courtroom is that she makes sure she’s as well prepared as possible on each and every individual case.
“I read everything I’ve been given …,” she said. “Be prepared before you walk out there on the cases you’re going to hear. I always felt better about that. Good lawyers are more than willing to give you information. I wanted to make the best decision I could with all the available information in front of me.”
In the end, Otero says it’s the people who she works with that make her job easier. It’s the court staff, the attorneys who came before her as well as those who work in the clerk’s office.
“You can’t do the job by yourself,” she says. “You need a supportive staff. You’re the one making the decisions, but it takes a team to make this system happen.”
After Otero leaves office, retired District Court Judge William Sanchez will fill in to cover her docket until Gov. Susana Martinez appoints a new judge to the bench.
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