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Second Judicial District Court

Tribunal del Segundo Distrito Judicial

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In the fall of 2017, Adrian Concini stood before a judge facing a possible nine-year prison sentence for two counts of trafficking controlled substances. At his arrest, Concini admitted to police that he was selling drugs primarily to support his own habit.

Twenty-two months later, Concini—now completely sober and gainfully employed—stood next to a judge who had just dismissed his charges, due to his successful completion of the Second Judicial District’s Young Adult Court program.

“You have truly changed the path of your life,” Second Judicial District Court Judge Cindy Leos said to Concini during the August ceremony marking his graduation from Young Adult Court. “You have become a genuine, hardworking, responsible adult. You also have gone beyond the program’s requirements by becoming a mentor to others. You are a true inspiration.”

Judge Leos presides over Young Adult Court. Concini is the first of what she expects to be many graduates of a program that began in 2017, with the aim of rehabilitating—rather than incarcerating—18- to 25-year-olds facing certain felony charges. Twenty-five other individuals are currently in the program.

“We expect 18-year-olds to make adult decisions, but the neuroscience shows that impulse control is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s,” Judge Leos said. “When we combine that with the challenges that many people in this age group face with employment and housing, we are looking at a perfect storm for criminal activity.”

That does not mean Young Adult Court participants get a free pass for illegal behavior. Individuals are referred to Young Adult Court by judges, attorneys or pre-trial supervision officers who encounter them at the early stages of their cases. A referral triggers a three-step screening process that includes a background investigation, a face-to-face assessment with a court clinician and a case review by the Young Adult Court team members.

Upon acceptance into the program, participants must adhere to all program rules, which include a weekly court appearance before Judge Leos and strict requirements to attend counseling sessions and submit to drug testing. Willfully violating these conditions will get a participant expelled from the program, with their case returning to the regular criminal court system.

Concini admits that his transformation did not happen immediately, and he found himself back in jail once following a relapse in his drug rehabilitation. “What finally made me snap was the real fear of going away for nine years,” he said. He feared that time would end his relationship with his fiancé and his daughter. That motivated him to make sobriety the chief focus of his life. Once he made that commitment, adhering to the program’s rules became much easier.

At his graduation ceremony, Concini said life is much better because he can now honestly say he is a “hardworking man who can take care of myself and my family.”

“This is the only program of its kind in New Mexico, and it is proving successful,” Judge Leos said at the graduation. “The participants in Young Adult Court aim to graduate the program in 18-24 months living a sober lifestyle with stable housing and employment—contributing to the overall safety of our community.”


The Second Judicial District Children’s Court hosted a group of international travelers with a specific interest in juvenile justice this month. The group observed delinquency hearings in Judge William Parnall’s courtroom, and met with all three of the Children’s Court judges to learn more about how the New Mexico juvenile justice system compares with systems in their respective countries.

The U.S. State Department sponsored the group’s trip to New Mexico as part of its International Visitor Leadership Program. The program builds mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations through short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders, according to the State Department’s website.

The New Mexico visitors were:

  • An attorney from Azerbaijan who specializes in defending the rights of disadvantaged groups, such as members of the LGBTQ community and child survivors of trafficking and domestic violence
  • A child protection officer with Welfare Department of Malaysia
  • Vice President of the Nepal Magar Association Central Committee, which works to protect the human rights of marginalized women in Nepal
  • An attorney who practices civil law while also advocating for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Trinidad and Tobago
  • The founder and executive director of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, which works to fight the practice of ritual child sacrifice in Uganda.

The group was impressed with their exposure to New Mexico’s juvenile justice system, with each of them saying they were working to have some aspects of our system introduced in their own countries.

Syed Azmi Alhabshi, the Malaysian child protection officer, noted that a good part of the court hearing centered on trying to find appropriate places for juveniles to get mental health treatment. “There are not a lot of places for children to get treatment in Malaysia,” he said.

Shalini Sankar, the attorney from Trinidad and Tobago, said the organizations she works with are pushing the government to clean up what she described a “horrible conditions” in that country’s juvenile detention facilities.

Peter Michael Sewakiryanga from Uganda pointed out the “real collaboration between the judge, the defense attorney and the prosecutor” in seeking workable solutions for the juveniles appearing in court. He said that dynamic is starting to take hold in Uganda, and gave the example of how it helped an 8-year-old from being held criminally liable after adults ordered him to kill a one-year-old as part of a witchcraft initiation. “Our court system is based on punishment,” he said. “We are trying to change that.”

Judge Parnall said he was happy to have the group in his courtroom, and he welcomed their questions about the proceedings. However, he said, it was more enjoyable taking them lunch at Garcia’s Kitchen, a restaurant near the courthouse that serves New Mexican cuisine.

“I told them that we have our judges’ meeting at Garcia’s and they seem surprised that judges would expose themselves to the community in that fashion,” Parnall said. “I said, we live in this community. It is important for people to see judges as more than strangers who sit behind a bench making decisions that affect their lives."


One worked as a copy editor and taught English in Northern Italy. The other earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry while also playing in the marching band.

These are the judicial externs from the University of New Mexico School of Law who worked at the Second Judicial District Court this summer. Despite traveling different routes to the study of law, the two agree that their experience at the Court confirmed that they are now on the right career path.

“Judicial externships provide students the opportunity to directly work and interact with judges and court staff. In so doing, students gain unique insight into the legal system from this side of the bench. The students engage in supervised research and writing and spend months observing numerous proceedings in every division, including jury trials. We work to facilitate sound development of their legal skills, and to assist students in understanding the many facets of trial, and appellate, practice here at Second Judicial,” said Judge Erin O’Connell.

“This externship has advanced my legal education and given me more confidence to enter the legal profession moving forward,” said Kori Nau, the former biochemistry major and marching band member at Texas Tech University. Nau worked closely with Elizabeth Garcia, the Court’s general counsel, and its primary champion of the externship program.

The SJDC Judicial Externship Program has externs complete a rotation throughout all of the divisions of the court—the Civil, Children’s, Criminal, and Family divisions—as well as its specialty courts and diversion programs. Garcia serves as an extern supervisor and gives them assignments, like legal research memorandums, that they are likely to see in their early days as attorneys. That certainly was true for Nau, who did research on the New Mexico Structured Settlement Act for Presiding Civil Division Judge Beatrice Brickhouse, while also observing court hearings and trials.

Jena Ritchey, the other summer extern, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Middlebury College in Vermont, before returning home to New Mexico and a copyediting job with the University of New Mexico Publishing Press. After a stint teaching English in Northern Italy, she enrolled in law school.

Ritchey spent her externship in Judge O’Connell’s Chambers, where she handled projects ranging from researching the new standard for review of landlord-tenant cases to drafting an appellate decision for a Workers’ Compensation appeal. Ritchey also observed hearings in all of the Court’s divisions. The prevalence of self-represented litigants in civil cases had a dramatic impact on Ritchey. “It gave me a sense of the pressing legal issues and great need facing New Mexicans,” Ritchey said.

As they head into their second year of law school, Nau and Ritchey will be colleagues again on the New Mexico Law Review. Ritchey also will work as a legal writing tutor while spending whatever free time she can find performing improvisational theater. Nau will serve as a Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project fellow and as Vice President for Programs and Membership of the Women’s Law Caucus.

These two Albuquerque natives appear destined for promising legal careers. They also are certain to retain fond memories of their time at the Second Judicial District Court. “Being part of the Second Judicial District Court for just a few months was a learning experience that I will appreciate throughout my legal career,” Nau said.

“I am so glad I spent my summer at the Second Judicial District Court,” Ritchey added. “I would highly recommend that all UNM law students seek out an externship here.”


Five judges from Mongolia visited New Mexico in late June, stopping in at the Second Judicial District Court along the way.

Global Ties ABQ, a non-profit organization that works to foster ongoing relationships between Albuquerque residents and international visitors, coordinated the tour, which the judges saw as a great educational experience.

Judge Victor Lopez hosted the group’s visit to the Second Judicial District Court. The visit included a tour of the courthouse, observing a pretrial detention hearing, and meeting with four district court judges to discuss the differences between the U.S. and Mongolian court systems.

An interpreter, far right, facilitates conversation among judges from Mongolia and the Second Judicial District Court. The Mongolian Judges questions centered on the jury selection process, the administration of drug court and whether electing judges hampers judicial independence. Mongolian judges receive lifetime appointments.

 

The visit included a tour of the courthouse, observing a pretrial detention hearing, and meeting with four district court judges to discuss the differences between the U.S. and Mongolian court systems.

Mongolia, which descended from the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Kahn in 1206, was a Communist State from the 1920s until the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990. The country adopted a democratic constitution, which included an independent judiciary, in 1992. The president appoints all of the country’s judges to lifetime terms. 

Three of the Mongolian judges on the New Mexico visit sit on First Instance Civil Courts, which are equivalent to New Mexico’s District Courts. One judge sits on an Inter-Soum First Instance Civil Court, which is akin to New Mexico’s Municipal or Metropolitan Courts. The fifth judge is the Chief Judge of a Provincial Criminal Court of Appeals. That court is similar to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, though it only considers criminal cases. 

In their meeting with the District Court Judges, the Mongolian Judges questions centered on the jury selection process, the administration of drug court and whether electing judges hampers judicial independence. The interest in drug court stems from an increasing problem with drug addiction in Mongolia and a desire to find solutions other than simply throwing people in jail. 

”I was struck with the Mongolian judges' incisive questioning on the jury selection process and how drug court personnel monitor and assure defendants' sobriety,” Judge Lopez said. “They also showed great interest in understanding how New Mexico's partisan elected judges may nevertheless maintain judicial independence.” 

Judge Joshua Allison, who sits on the district court’s civil bench, told the group that judges in this system know that their decisions could leave them vulnerable in elections, but they have to ignore that possibility and adhere to the rule of law when deciding cases. In essence, he said, the Judicial Code of Conduct overrides political considerations.

Munkdhavaa Magnalbayar, the Mongolian Criminal Court of Appeals Judge, asked about a detailed exchange between the judge and the defense attorney during the pretrial detention hearing. “It seemed evident that the judge was going to detain the defendant,” Magnalbayar said. “Why did she have to have such a long discussion with the attorney?” Charles Brown, presiding judge of the district court’s Criminal Division, explained that judges in the U.S. court system are required to explain their decisions, and having that conversation with an attorney in open court adds to that transparency. 

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The State Bar of New Mexico has selected Second Judicial District Court Chief Judge Stan Whitaker to receive the Justice Pamela B. Minzer Professionalism Award for 2019.

This award was renamed in honor of Justice Minzer in 2007 for her commitment to the concepts of civility and professionalism in the legal profession. The award recognizes attorneys and judges who exemplify the epitome of professionalism over long and distinguished legal careers.

In a letter informing Judge Whitaker of his selection for the award, State Bar of New Mexico Executive Director Richard Spinello wrote, “The recipients of this award are selected with special care for their service, dedication and commitment to the legal profession and the community. Your professional, ethical and personal conduct throughout your impressive legal career and on the bench make you most deserving of this special award.”

Judge Whitaker has indeed had a long and distinguished legal career, starting with his 1989 graduation from the University of New Mexico School of Law. After working as a civil litigator with two different Albuquerque law firms, Judge Whitaker joined the Family Crimes Unit of the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted child abuse cases.

Judge Whitaker first came to the Second Judicial District Court as a Special Master in the Family Court Division. While in that job, Judge Whitaker joined Judge Nash, who also was a Special Master at the time, to develop a pilot program for emergency orders of protection. The two also lobbied the Supreme Court to standardize orders of protection across the state.

Judge Whitaker left the court to serve as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. He returned to District Court in 2006, accepting an appointment as a Family Court Judge. A year later, he moved to the Criminal Division. In 2018, Judge Whitaker’s peers elected him Chief Judge of District Court. He succeeded Judge Nash as Chief Judge on January 1, 2019. In addition to overseeing the court’s administrative and fiscal operations, Judge Whitaker continues to preside over a docket of criminal cases.

“No one embodies the principles that underlie the Justice Pamela Minzer Professionalism Award more than Chief Judge Whitaker” said Court Executive Officer James Noel. “He conducts court with calm focus and determination, and is respectful of litigants and attorneys, regardless of the case before him. He maintains the same demeanor with court staff in his role as Chief Judge. He truly exemplifies the qualities represented by this prestigious award.”

“I am both honored and humbled to be selected for this award,” Judge Whitaker said. “I am aware of the example Justice Minzer set in terms of treating everyone involved in the legal system—attorneys, judges and member of the public—with the utmost respect even when dealing with contentious issues. It means a lot to me that the members of the State Bar think I have at least come close to living up to that standard.”

Judge Whitaker will receive the Justice Pamela Minzer Professionalism Award at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in August of 2019.


Cassie & Judge WardOne of the most recognizable faces at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Justice Center belongs to Cassie, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever.

Cassie interacts with families, especially those with children, who need her friendship. When a girl is called to testify about traumatic abuse or neglect, Cassie might sit at her feet to provide solace. Or Cassie might stay with a sobbing boy who has just been separated from his parents after being placed into protective custody.

"Cassie provides great comfort in the courtroom and gets smiles from everyone she meets when she is in the building," Children’s Court Judge Marie Ward said.  "She is a silent companion who has a way of removing the edge from very difficult situations."

Cassie has been a presence at the Juvenile Justice Center since late 2013. She is a specially-trained Courthouse CASA dog, a name that is derived from the acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates.

Cassie was purchased using a grant by New Mexico Kids Matter, the CASA program in Albuquerque. CASA believes that every child who has been abused, neglected or is in foster care deserves to have a dedicated volunteer advocate speaking up for them in court.

"We are very fortunate to have Cassie, both as a resource and as a friend," Judge Ward said.  "She brings a lift to everyone she meets and she is especially valuable to the children who need her most."

Cassie was trained by Assistance Dogs of the West, a Santa Fe-based accredited service dog organization that also provides service dogs for the Veterans Court program. Courthouse dogs have been used around the country since 2003.

For more information about CASA please visit www.nmkidsmatter.org.



​Archived News

On Constitution Day, Let us Reflect on the True Role of the Judiciary

On September 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met to sign the document they had spent the previous four months drafting.

That document, the U.S. Constitution, outlines the basic structure of our nation’s government. The first three articles of the constitution identify three co-equal branches of government with separate and distinct powers and responsibilities.

The Constitution outlines the separation of powers: the Legislative branch makes law; the Executive branch executes the law; and the Judicial branch interprets and applies the law.

September 17th of each year is designated Constitution Day in acknowledgement of the day our current government was formed. This year, as we mark the 231st anniversary of the Constitution’s signing, we should reflect on the true role of what is commonly referred as the third branch of government—the Judiciary.

The framers of the constitution sought to make the Judiciary an independent branch of government that could go about its work of interpreting laws and settling legal disputes without having to consult members of the other branches of government—or survey public opinion—before making decisions. The desire to keep the Judiciary free from such influences is why U.S. Supreme Court Justices—once appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate—serve life terms.

By contrast, State Court Judges do not serve life terms. They typically are elected to the bench and face retention elections every six years. Still, they are fair and impartial arbiters of the law, carrying out their duties without regard to political whim or popular opinion.

Differences between Branches of Government

Members of the executive and legislative branches, at both the federal and state levels, regularly interact with lobbyists and members of special interest groups. They also are likely to review public opinion polls and news stories when deciding what position to take on a particular law or policy. The members of those branches of government are elected to represent the public; they require public input to do that properly.

The Judiciary plays a different—but very important—role in our Constitutional form of government.

The Judiciary is not a political or representative branch of government. Its duty is to uphold the law, and make decisions in accordance with the law, even when those decisions go against popular opinion. Judges resolve disputes based on the law and the facts presented in individual cases.

The Judiciary also is the branch of government that protects the civil rights and liberties granted to all citizens within the Constitution. Part of that job is ensuring that the other branches of government recognize the limits of their powers.

Sometimes, making an unpopular decision will cause members of the public to label a judge a liberal or a conservative. In extreme cases, as we have seen recently in New Mexico, judges have been threatened with bodily harm by people who disagree with their decisions.

Judges know they are bound to follow the laws of the land—the U.S. and State Constitutions, as well as state and federal laws. They also must adhere to rules of court procedure and a judicial code of conduct, which strictly forbids letting personal feelings enter into their decision making.

William H. Rehnquist, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice stated: “A Judge is bound to decide each case fairly, in accord with the relevant facts and applicable law, even when the decision is not the one the home crowd wants.”

That is exactly how the framers of the Constitution expected judges to behave when they laid out the structure of our current form of government 231 years ago. The framers, in essence, charged the Judiciary with protecting our constitutional rights. We should remember that not just on Constitution Day, but every day.

 

 

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