LOS LUNAS — As only the second magistrate for Valencia County Magistrate Division III, Judge John “Buddy” Sanchez says it’s time for the younger generation to have a chance.

“I think there’s a time when you have to step down and let another generation do the job,” Sanchez said last week. “I think it’s time for me to go ahead and step back a little bit, and do something else.”

For 27 years, Sanchez has been the face of Division III, a stretch of years he’s enjoyed.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Magistrate John “Buddy” Sanchez will retire from the bench at the end of the year.

“I can’t remember a really bad experience. I know some people had a bad attitude, but that’s understandable,” he said with a chuckle.

In 1992, the New Mexico Legislature created a second magistrate division in Los Lunas — Division III, and in 1994, Judge Lydia Carbajal was appointed as the first judge in the newly-formed division.

Later that year, Sanchez was elected, taking the bench in January 1995. He will retire at the end of the year, leaving one year before the end of his last four-year term.

Before becoming a judge, Sanchez worked as an corrections officer at the Valencia County Detention Center, then spent eight years with the New Mexico State Police.

Sanchez had begun down the path to become a lawyer when the opportunity to run for magistrate came about.

“After I won the judgeship, I was doing what I wanted to do,” he said.

In New Mexico, magistrates aren’t required to be attorneys, but they are required to attend judicial college, which Sanchez has done for nearly three decades.

Serving as a neutral party in the judicial system is something Sanchez places great value in.

“The way I look at it, judges are the block between living in a communist country versus living in a free country,” he said. “You can have a police state where the judges all believe every police officer that walks in. You have to make sure that everyone’s rights are protected.”

Magistrate courts are considered a “people’s court,” he said, and he’s worked to keep it that way.

“You’re a lot more accessible to the public as a magistrate than a district court judge,” Sanchez said. “I make sure people understand I’m here for them. I’ve never forgot who my boss is, and that’s the public. I’m not over them — I’m under them. They’re above me.”

During his time on the bench, the judicial system has changed and may yet change again, especially in terms of rules on bail, he said.

“People voted for changes, but they thought the law was going to change so the judges could actually hold someone without bond to stop some of these criminals from being released, but it’s actually not that way,” the judge said.

“We need to take another dive into that and put a bit more responsibility where it belongs — the initial judges viewing these cases. We know our community and we know these defendants. Most of the times because it’s usually not their first time in front of us.”

Sanchez’s tenure wasn’t without controversy. In mid 2006, he was placed on indefinite paid administrative medical leave by the New Mexico Supreme Court due to elevated serum ammonia levels.

After arguments before the Supreme Court in 2007, the high court issued an order allowing him to return to the bench as long as certain conditions were met, including that he pass ongoing random drug and alcohol screening, ongoing random serum ammonia testing, and that he report the results of those tests to the Judicial Standards Commission and the Supreme Court.

Looking back at that time, Sanchez said he wouldn’t change a single thing.

“I did it for the right reasons. When I actually got placed on leave, it was because doctors found I had a diverticulitis. I got really sick and that’s what really caused everything,” he said. “As far as going before judicial standards, it was a learning process. I learned you don’t know everything and I accepted that.”

When he retires in December, Sanchez will find something else to do outside the judiciary.

“Probably more manual labor than anything here. Dig ditches and pour concrete or something like that,” he said with a straight face. “I like manual labor, right? That’s all I grew up doing.”

Sanchez said he’s had a tremendous amount of support from the community, but he couldn’t have done anything without the support of his wife, two children and grandchildren.

“They’ve been 100 percent behind me,” the Republican said. “And I can’t say enough about the clerks I’ve had over the years. I’ve had very professional individuals who have worked for me. I couldn’t have done this job even half as well as I have if it wasn’t for them. They are just beyond the best employees.”

Those interested in filling the vacancy can download the application at governor.state.nm.us/judicial-posts/ or request one by sending an email to vanessa.kennedy@state.nm.us. All applications must be received no later than Friday, Nov. 19. Applications must be submitted by email to vanessa.kennedy@state.nm.us.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.