Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
City and state leaders broke ground Monday for the new magistrate/municipal courthouse in Belen. Pictured, from left, are Sen. Greg Baca, Belen Councilors Frank Ortega and Yvette Padilla, Magistrate John Chavez, Belen Mayor Robert Noblin, New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil, Belen Municipal Judge Keith Norwood and Councilors Danny Bernal Jr. and Steve Holdman.

BELEN — A ground-breaking ceremony held Monday for the new magistrate and municipal courthouse in Belen attracted leaders from all levels of government from the Supreme Court to municipal officials.

The new courthouse, which will be built on the east end of the Belen City Hall’s parking lot on Becker Avenue, has been a long time coming, with the idea spurred in 2016. The project was delayed several times, but is now on the fast track to be completed by January 2023.

The Administrative Office of the Courts and the city of Belen are partnering to provide the 11,100 square-foot courthouse, which will house both the state magistrate and Belen municipal courts, secure holding for prisoners as well as public and staff areas.

The city council approved the final cost, $5.6 million, of the construction last month. Bradbury Stamm has been hired by the Administrative Office of the Courts, who will be paying for the construction, while the city of Belen is acting as the fiscal agent for the project.

Artie Pepin, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, told the crowd Monday he’s excited to be part of this project, and even though it’s taken awhile, it’s going to be an asset for the citizens.

Renderings courtesy of SMPC Architects
This is a rendering of the soon-to-be constructed magistrate/municipal courthouse in Belen. The new facility will be built on the east end of the parking lot at Belen City Hall.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil said it’s special to have such a courthouse with two different courts under one roof.

“We’re all partners in our endeavor to bring justice to the people of New Mexico,” Vigil said. “We operate at different levels — but not really.”

Magistrate courts hear tort, contract, landlord/tenant cases; felony preliminary hearings; misdemeanor, DWI/DUI and other traffic violations. Municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction hearing petty misdemeanors, DWI/DUI cases, traffic violations and other municipal ordinance violations.

“When I first became a lawyer, and we had cases come from Albuquerque to Belen, I remember the magistrate court used to be (next to) a bakery on Main Street,” Vigil said. “Boy, we’ve come a long way. It’s going to be a wonderful building to bring justice to our folks in this part of the state.”

Belen Mayor Robert Noblin said the judicial system is often neglected when speaking about crime, but said courts are responsible for enforcing equal liberty, the rule of law, equal protection and due process.

“Today, we thank the Administrative Order of the Courts for selecting Belen as one of three statewide locations for a new facility, and the only one that will house municipal and magistrate courts under one roof,” Noblin said.

“I want to assure (the public) that city hall will remain open for business, and we will continue to provide parking for our customers …,” he said. “We know there will be some inconveniences, and we regret that, but we also know we’ll have something here to be very proud of here in the city of Belen.”

Courtesy of SMPC Architects
This architectural drawing of the magistrate/municipal courthouse to be built in Belen will be about 11,000 square feet.

Valencia County Division II Magistrate John Chavez, who’s courtroom is currently located on West Castillo Avenue in Belen, said when he was first appointed to the bench in 2014, he knew changes needed to be made.

“When I first walked in, right away I saw huge hazards; there were file cabinets in the hallways, egress routes were blocked and when I walked into the courtroom, I found they were on top of each other, including attorneys and defendants — it’s so tight in that courthouse,” Chavez said.

He noted the current courthouse was built 25 years ago, but they’ve grown out of the space with more staff and about 5,000 cases per year.

“Many of the magistrate courts throughout the state are in public-private partnerships, meaning they have a private landlord, and that is the case with courthouse here in Belen,” he said. “If you go out throughout the state, you’ll find magistrate courthouses in back areas, sometimes very hard to find.”

Chavez said when he got approval to go out and find a new location for the courthouse in 2016, he brought up the idea of a pubic-to-public partnership. That’s when he approached the city of Belen with his idea.

“It’s a great way to provide access to justice to the citizens of Valencia County, to the citizens of Belen and, really, to the citizens of New Mexico who no longer have to try and find our courthouse,” Chavez said.

Newly-elected Belen Municipal Judge Keith Norwood also thanked those who were responsible for making the project a reality.

“I’m the most blessed man in this parking lot to be a part of this — a new courthouse,” Norwood said. “This is much more than just concrete and bricks brought in to create this courthouse. Justice has to live in our hearts, in our spirit, and that’s something we have to practice daily — to treat each other with respect.”

Norwood said the foundation of the new building will one day crumble, but it’s within the community to keep justice alive.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.