In a few weeks, Manuel Chavez will hear his last case as municipal judge in Belen. He will take off his robe, pack up is office and say good-bye after more than 21 years on the bench.
Chavez decided last October he would not seek another term, after deciding thousands of cases which came before him. He admits his reason for leaving the bench was due to a lack of money.
“I’m 87 years old, and I thought there is too much work, and I don’t think the money was enough for me to stay,” he said.
“I asked for a raise, and, when I was turned down, I thought it was better that I quit. I’m still in very good health, but I think this is a good change for me.”
Chavez was appointed to the office in 1981 and was elected by the voters a year later. His only competition came during that first election.
“The other five times were a free ride,” he said. “I ran uncontested ever since.”
With his experience as county treasure and a Los Lunas school board member, Chavez said, he decided to seek the office because he always liked working with people.
“All my life I’ve worked with the public, and I thought I could make a difference,” he said.
As the day draws closer when Chavez will have to hand over his gavel to the next judge, he says he feels a sense of achievement in his role as judge.
“I think I have accomplished what I was elected for,” he said. “When I first started, it was a part time job and we only held night court. There were just a few cases, and now it’s a full time job.”
Chavez remembers the days when he would hear about 10 cases a week.
“Now, I have about 100 cases a week because there are more people and more crime,” he said. “There are a lot more officers here now than when I first started.”
For more than two decades, Chavez has been ruling on cases involving traffic citations, zoning infractions and DWIs. He said the drunk driving cases are the hardest but most important in his courtroom.
Municipal judges only hear first time DWI offenders, and Chavez believes he has been in the best position to make a difference with them.
“I try and steer them in the right direction and advise them to learn from their mistakes,” he said.
Chavez said, in the past 21 years of ruling on a variety of different cases, he has only lost three appeals in district court. The reason, he says, is because he tries to treat everyone with the respect he wants in return.
“First of all, I know they are human beings, and we all make mistakes,” Chavez said. “The only thing I ask is that they don’t repeat them again.”
Chavez has several pieces of advice for the next judge who will take his place. First, he wants to warn the next judge about the amount of work that is required for the position.
“You have to be here and have to be available to the public almost 24 hours a day,” he said. “They’ll call you at the house to sign warrants or to arraign someone. So, the next judge has to make a commitment to the citizens to always be available.”
The next piece of advice Chavez has for his successor is the simple practice of being fair.
“I hope they’ll just remember that everyone is human, like them,” he said. “Everybody can make a mistake, even a judge.”
Looking back at his career, Chavez said the most rewarding aspect of his job was the people.
“I’m going to miss the people,” he said. “There are very, very good people here, and it’s been a pleasure to work for them and with them.”
Chavez says he will always be there for the citizens of Belen, even when he’s retired and working on his farm with his grandchildren.
“I’ll still be around,” he said. “I’ll still continue to help anyway I can.”