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Winner of district judge race in Santa Fe could have statewide impact

Many of the most serious and complicated civil cases in New Mexico are heard in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe. Judges who preside over a civil docket in the capital city must be prepared to make decisions that can have consequences for the entire state.

During her two terms on the bench, Division II District Judge Sarah Singleton handed down a ruling that negated gubernatorial vetoes of 10 bills (they became laws as a result), ordered the Santa Fe County clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and presided over a wrongful death case resulting in the largest jury award in state history.

Four Democrats — former Santa Fe County Attorney Gregory Shaffer, Santa Fe County Magistrate Court Judge Donna Bevacqua-Young, former Assistant Attorney General and Assistant District Attorney Maria Sanchez-Gagne, and former city police officer-turned-lawyer Jerry A. Archuleta — are seeking to fill the vacancy created by Singleton’s retirement.

Because there are no Republican candidates, the Democratic primary winner will become the new judge, presiding over a docket of predominantly civil cases originating in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, and cases aimed at state agencies.

Three of the current candidates — Shaffer, Sanchez-Gagne and Archuleta — were among eight applicants who sought appointment when Singleton announced her retirement last summer. All were interviewed by the commission, but Shaffer was the only one of the current candidates who had his name sent to the governor.

Martinez appointed Shaffer to the seat. Per state law, however, he must now defeat his challengers to stay on the bench.

Shaffer — who took the bench in October but before that had never taken a case to jury trial — stressed his selection by the commission as one of the reasons voters should elect him.

Sanchez-Gagne was interviewed but not nominated by the commission for Singleton’s seat. She puts less stock in the nominating commission’s vetting, calling it a “very political process” in which candidates’ chances are likely “based on past history or relationships with the governor.”

She worked for the state Attorney General’s Office for 15 years before being fired in 2015 under circumstances she described as “a dismissal with a positive recommendation.” The letter she received said her services were no longer needed but did not list any performance issues she might have addressed, she said.

“It was just a new administration coming in,” she said. Her firing came nine months after the regime change.

Sanchez-Gagne later joined a lawsuit filed against the Attorney General’s Office by group of about 20 employees who were terminated en masse when Attorney General Hector Balderas took office in January 2015. That case is pending in the state Court of Appeals.

Archuleta was fired from the police department following criticism of his handling of the initial investigation into the disappearance of 7-year-old Robbie Romero and allegations of insurance fraud. But, he said recently, he wouldn’t change how he handled the investigation into the boy’s disappearance in June 2000 — a high-profile case. And the insurance issue was the result of a paperwork error, he added.

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