Lest we forget, and as we say good riddance to 2020, we should take time to remember the high points of this past year.
Certainly 2020 had no shortage of challenges, and fortunately we had heroes ready to respond. As the contemporary saying goes, “Not all heroes wear capes.” While front-line heath care workers immediately come to mind, so do truck drivers, farmers, teachers and others.
My 2020 heroes have been the court clerks. While judges are the black-robed face of the judiciary, nothing happens without the clerks. During the pandemic, court personnel were immediately deemed essential. As a result, and with a very few exceptions, state courts did not close for a single day.
Courts did have to modify how they did business. By limiting the number of personnel in the building and by implementing other COVID-19 safeguards, courts stayed open. Our clerks went from fully staffed in the office with all their resources available to a modified schedule that included a rotation of work from home.
In doing this, our clerks have office phones forwarded to their personal phones and many utilize their own home computers to access the judicial network. This alone is a significant selfless contribution.
Our clerks went from building files to making masks for judicial employees. They went from taking phone calls to taking temperatures, and from checking people physically into court to checking people into video court.
I must add, that managing video court is not easy task. On a busy morning, it is not unusual for our clerks to manage upwards of 100 people on a single video court call.
Along with the physical changes to the court, we also witnessed the necessary and immediate change of many New Mexico Supreme Court rules. To name only a few, these included the restriction or the suspension of jury trials as well as changes to landlord/tenant cases. While these changes were announced and shared by a variety of means, it was often the court clerks that informed the public and explained the impact. Not surprisingly, they also endured the wrath of initial frustration.
The transition from dealing largely with paper filings to increasingly using email, text and other means required some adjustment as well. This process was not without bumps in the road, but our court clerks overcame them.
While not technically clerks, the judiciary also has employees from across the vast domains of professional services — from staff attorneys, human resources administrators and facility managers to information technology specialists and many others. They too had to make changes to how they conducted their job duties, and courts could not have remained open without them.
In this regard, our judicial partners are heroes, too. District and defense attorneys, probation and compliance officers, correction and detention officers, law enforcement, counselors, victim’s advocates and many others have all played an important role in keeping our courts open.
They have modified their processes to keep themselves and their personnel safe and, like our clerks, have responded to the changes to court rules and practices.
Sadly, as so many people have during this pandemic, our court personnel lost loved ones and had to mourn privately. Likewise, they celebrated life’s milestones with little fanfare. They have had to quarantine at times, have been tested when necessary and some have been infected. All of this and the work of the court continues.
During last summer’s special legislative session, and as a result of COVID-19 related economic hard times, our state legislators had to make tough decisions regarding the state budget. Modest raises, which had been earned by public employees and approved in the regular 2020 legislative session, were wiped away prior to implementation. Still our clerks performed their duties, happy to have their jobs when so many in our communities lost theirs.
While unknown to many in the public, my clerks and our supporting court personnel have names, although there are too many to mention here. Suffice to say, I am ever thankful for the work they have done and that they continue to do.
So, I unabashedly say: My clerks give me hope, my clerks inspire me and my clerks are truly heroes. Thank you to the clerks of the court for all that you do and may 2021 bring us brighter days.
(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.)