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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New Mexico Judges Sue for Colleague’s Spy Records

Two state judges have sued the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission, demanding secret surveillance recordings they say were made by another judge who was spying on them.

FARMINGTON, N.M. (CN) — Two state judges have sued the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission, demanding secret surveillance recordings they say were made by another judge who was spying on them.

Plaintiffs Trudy Reed-Chase and Barry Sharer are magistrate court judges in Aztec, New Mexico, the seat of San Juan County. Aztec, a town of about 6,000 is in a remote area of northeastern New Mexico. The nearest large town is Farmington.

Reed-Chase, Sharer and nine other court employees sued Magistrate Court Judge Connie Lee Johnston, her husband and sister-in-law and the state in February 2016, claiming that Johnston had planted listening devices around the Aztec Municipal Courthouse, including in the offices of Reed-Chase and Sharer. They claimed that electronic surveillance equipment also was placed in the court manager’s office and other workspaces, in inmate holding facilities and in at least one bathroom.

According to that complaint, Johnston recorded hundreds of hours of personal and private conversations and listened to the recordings her husband, retired sheriff’s Officer Bryan Johnston, and her sister-in-law Michelle Constant, an evidence manager at the sheriff’s office.

The three are accused of transcribing portions of the recorded conversations for reasons not specifically stated. When the recording devices were discovered, the plaintiffs reported the situation to the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission.

It was not Johnston’s first clash with the NMJSC. In December 2015, Johnston was temporarily suspended by the New Mexico Supreme Court after she ordered a court clerk jailed for contempt.

Johnston ordered that court clerk Amy Verholst — a plaintiff in the original invasion of privacy lawsuit and the current bid demanding return of the surreptitious recordings — be held in criminal contempt and jailed for 30 days because she refused to leave Johnston's courtroom when ordered to do so. The contempt order was quickly reversed by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The 2016 privacy and civil conspiracy lawsuit was part of a legal battle which included criminal contempt of court charges against Johnston in March 2017 for failure to produce the recordings.

The Judicial Standards Commission received the recordings, portions of which were used as evidence in hearings which were resolved with an out-of-court settlement in July 2017 and led to Johnston being permanently removed from judicial office as of October 2017.

The plaintiffs in the new civil suit, filed Friday, say that the recordings, which contain “intimate details of personal life, relationship details, family details, marriage details intimacy, autonomy, private debts, protected medical information and other personal details,” should have been turned over to them at the conclusion of the hearings, but were not.

As the removal proceedings are over, the plaintiffs say, and with Johnston no longer a judge, the Judicial Standards Commission no longer has jurisdiction. Yet when the plaintiffs asked that the recordings be turned over to them, NMJSC Executive Director Randall Roybal “refused to relinquish the secret recordings.”

Neither Roybal, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit, and Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Barry Massey had seen the lawsuit as of midday Monday and so declined to comment.

H. Steven Murphy of Titus & Murphy in Farmington, N.M is representing the plaintiffs and says that given that the recordings are the product of an illegal wiretap, his clients have the right to recover them. He says that he wants Roybal and the NMJSC to, “do the right thing, quit wasting taxpayer money and give us the tape. They have no value to anyone but my clients.”

The plaintiffs say they are not seeking monetary damages, only that the secret recordings be restored to the people who were spied upon.

Categories / Courts, Regional

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