In last month’s Court Report, I wrote about the development of magistrate courts from their origins as alcaldes, then justices of the peace in the Territory of New Mexico and through statehood. Ultimately, they became magistrate courts in the late 1960s.
In doing that research, I found other interesting historical facts borne out of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial history that I will summarize in this month’s Court Report.
Supreme Court: In 1846, under the Kearny Code, New Mexico did not have a supreme court. Rather, it had a superior court made up of a three-judge panel from the three circuit courts.
The superior court was to meet six times a year — twice in the town of Valencia, (now Los Lunas), twice in the city of Santa Fe, and twice in the town of Don Fernando, (now Taos).
This system matured during the territorial period and at statehood, the 1912 Constitution provided for a standing Supreme Court of three justices. The constitution provided that the justices “be at least 30 years old, learned in the law, and shall have been in the actual practice of law and resided in this state or the Territory of New Mexico, for at least three years.”
The Constitution also provided a rate of pay for Supreme Court justices of $6,000 annually, paid on a quarterly basis.
Over time, the Supreme Court grew to its current five-member panel. Qualifications have also changed; justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court must now be at least 35 years old and have practiced law for 10 years. Today, the salary of a Supreme Court justice is established by statute.
Court of Appeals: During the territorial period, through statehood and up until a constitutional change in 1965, New Mexico did not have a Court of Appeals.
Today the Court of Appeals is comprised of 10 judges who sit in three-judge panels.
District Court: The Kearny Code did not have district courts but rather three circuit courts — the central, the northern and the southeastern.
The northern circuit met six times a year, rotating between the town of Los Luceros and the town of Don Fernando. Likewise, the southeastern circuit met six times a year in the towns of Valencia and Bernalillo. The central circuit was bit busier meeting nine times a year in the town of Algodones, the city of Santa Fe, and the town of San Miguel.
Also maturing during the territorial period, the 1912 Constitution provided for eight judicial districts. Today, the state of New Mexico is comprised of 13 judicial districts and 96 district court judges.
Metropolitan Court: Like the Court of Appeals, metro court did not exist until a constitutional change under Article VI, Section 26, Magistrate Court.
Beyond their magistrate jurisdiction, metropolitan court judges hear certain case on the record, adjudicate city ordinances and are required to be attorneys. Metropolitan court judges exist only in the county of Bernalillo.
Probate Court: Probate courts came out of a tradition of Spanish Colonial Prefects. The Kearny Code included provisions for the governor to appoint one prefect per county with some wide-ranging powers.
These included familiar judicial roles like having jurisdiction in all cases relative to the probate of last wills and testaments. They also had administrative responsibilities, such as “superintendence of public roads” as well as “the supervision of vagrants.”
By 1912, probate judges replaced prefects and the Constitution provided they be courts of record and could hear civil cases up to $1,000.
Today probate courts our governed by state statute and adjudicate uncontested probate cases.
Municipal Courts: Municipal courts have a bit of a convoluted history. Like many of the other preceding courts, these courts did not exist in the Kearny Code.
However, the 1912 Constitution — under the same section as justices of the peace — is mention of something called a “police magistrate.”
According to numerous requests to the attorney general over the years, many municipalities inquired about establishing a police court. Repeatedly, the answer back was “no they could not.”
Rather, a justice of the peace for the same area could also serve as the police magistrate to hear local municipal code cases, but there could not be a separate court. While the Constitution provided for police magistrates, there was not statutory guidance for the same.
In 1932, following similar logic as the previous attorney general opinions, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in Stout v. Clovis, “only one holding office as justice of the peace may be designated as police judge in such municipality.”
In 1939, the Legislature did establish police courts to hear ordinances and laws of cities and towns. These police courts, modified over time, became our current-day municipal courts.
Admittedly, this was a very quick overview and only a glimpse into New Mexico’s rich judicial history.
(Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)