Judge John Chavez

How did you celebrate or memorialize this past September 22? You know — the 175th anniversary of the Kearny Code.

Enacted on Sept. 22, 1846, the Kearny Code, named after Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, were the territorial laws for the Territory of New Mexico. Created from the in-place administrative codes from Mexico, and shaped primarily from the Bill of Rights and Constitution of the state of Missouri. It was the rule of law until statehood.

Interestingly, many parts of the code still exist, with little or no change in our current state constitution, New Mexico statutes or rules.

Initially, the new territory maintained the use of alcaldes in local municipalities. Alcaldes came to us from a Spanish Colonial tradition. Alcaldes acted as a chief administrative and judicial officer for a specific region. The Spanish word “alcalde” comes from the Arabic word al-q, which means “the judge.” The Spaniards used alcaldes throughout their colonies, and the Mexican government left the system in place when they obtained their independence in 1821.

Kearny also left the system in place, along with other governmental processes. Under the Kearny Code, the governor appointed no more than four alcaldes in each county. Alcaldes had a civil case limitation of $90 and in criminal cases where the penalty did not exceed $50. Alcaldes were required to hold court at least one day a month.

Throughout the territorial period, the judicial system changed and justices of the peace replaced alcaldes. By the time New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, justices of the peace had a jurisdiction in civil cases that did not exceed $200.00 and misdemeanor jurisdiction where the sentence did not exceed six-months.

Over the years, justices of the peace kept the state attorney general busy answering questions about both the law and jurisdiction. I found some of the more amusing questions to revolve around the issuance of dance licenses.

In 1914, Attorney General Frank W. Clancy answered whether a justice of the peace can give a license for bailes held for purposes of profit or gain. The answer: “A license must be had in order to give dances for profit or gain, or in connection with any place where liquors are sold.”

Attorney General Clancy, also in 1914, answered whether a justice of the peace could refuse to issue a license for a holiday baile to be held on a Sunday. His answer: “The statute under which it is necessary to have a license from a justice of the peace to give a ball does not seem to give any discretion to the justice absolutely to refuse the license.”

In 1964, here in Valencia County, a justice of the peace from Los Lunas asked if he could run for village mayor and remain as a justice of the peace. The attorney general responded with a simple, “Yes” followed by a lengthy opinion and analysis.

At the tail end of the justice of the peace era is a murder story concerning Howard Neal “Bud” Rice. “Bud” had been a justice of the peace in Budville, a town named for himself.  In 1967, when Budville was part of Valencia County, “Bud” was found dead along with an employee. To this day, the murder remains unsolved. Some place the motive as revenge for alleged unscrupulous practices by Justice of the Peace “Bud” Rice.

A constitutional amendment in 1966 replaced the justice of the peace system with magistrate judges. In 1968, the first magistrate judges were elected and assumed office in January 1969. In Valencia County, the first magistrate judges were Judge Marty Pearl, Division I in Los Lunas; Judge Gillie “Gil” Sanchez, Division II in Belen; Judge John Horacek, Division III in Grants; and Judge Rebecca Gomez, Division IV in Milan.
Cibola County separated from Valencia County in 1981.

In 1992, the state Legislature created a second magistrate division in Los Lunas as Division III. In 1994, Judge Lydia Carbajal was appointed as the first judge in the newly formed division. In the same year, Judge John “Buddy” Sanchez, the current Division III judge, followed her.
Other familiar names filled the ranks of magistrate judge in Valencia County. In Division I: Judge Frank Sedillo, Judge Tody Perea, Judge Tina Garcia, Judge Heather Benavidez and Judge Miles Tafoya. In Division II: Judge Jimmy Baca, Judge Danny Hawkes and myself.

Today, magistrate judges have a jurisdiction in civil matters of up to $10,000 and fully adjudicate criminal misdemeanor cases. Felony cases begin in magistrate court before heading to district court for adjudication.
Although the duties and jurisdiction have changed greatly over the years, magistrate judges continue to be the face of the judiciary in rural New Mexico.

(Thank you to both Judge Tody Perea and Judge Marty Pearl for helping the author collect names and verify dates.)

(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.)

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Judge John Chavez, guest columnist

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.