This post took me a long time to write because it’s so personal and I hated having to write it, but it’s become unbearable to stay silent.
For almost two years, I have been representing myself (pro se) in a Family Court matter involving my daughter and her father. For those of you who haven’t been through the NM Family Court system, it’s impossible to describe the misery.
I’ve acted as my own attorney because I could not afford the going rate of $300/hour for a reputable family law lawyer to represent me. After tons of study, I learned how to read and write legal pleadings, prepare and speak in court hearings, and maintain my strength while under constant attack from opposing counsel in the case – one of the most expensive, well-connected and combative family court lawyers in New Mexico. I endured exhaustive assaults on my character, my beliefs, my parenting, my job, my income, and my mental fitness – all in an effort for the other side to ‘win’. These unnecessary and counterproductive attacks took an enormous toll on my time, my life, my health, my family, my work and the few close friends in whom I confided. Representing myself became a full-time job for well over a year that very few people knew about because I tried so hard to keep this personal matter private.
Exhausted in every way, I lost hope that the court would provide any helpful resolution to our conflict, or that the opposing side would ever agree to mediation, but I held on to the hope that if anyone would be ethical and fair, it would be our judge. Unfortunately, as the case went on, I realized how differently she treated me from my opposing counsel. Whether she was supporting the other side’s narrative through her silence, her decisions, her refusal to hear or admit evidence, her condescending statements, her interruptions when I would speak, or her curt responses to my sincere questions, I wondered how this supposedly neutral person could not see the double standard she was creating. Maybe she wasn’t aware of it. Maybe she thought she was treating us equally. But in our last hearing, our judge’s behavior was too biased and belittling to ignore.
That day, I drove home from the courtroom in tears, enraged that these professional women—both of whom are parents themselves—could behave this way. Then it came. A friend forwarded me a Facebook invite for a “Meet and Greet” with our judge, hosted by my opposing counsel’s law firm.
Meet and Greets are essentially fundraising events where lawyers and other legal professionals socialize with the judges who preside over their cases, and, more often than not, make donations to their campaigns. I could not believe what I was reading.
Our Judge was appointed to the District Court in Albuquerque last year. My opposing counsel wrote a compelling letter to the Governor supporting her appointment, and, outside of a New Mexico PAC, she and her law partners were my judge’s largest campaign contributor—at least six contributions since my case began.
As someone unfamiliar with this practice, I was astounded. I learned this is common in civil and criminal court as well. How could this kind of incestuous social and financial relationship between judges and the lawyers who practice before them be legal? How could the legal community not see the obvious conflict of interest?
So I researched and found that my judge’s behavior violated at least four statutes of the NM Civil Code of Conduct and the NM Rules of Civil Procedure. I then worked for weeks to create a well-supported, formal complaint to the Judicial Standards Commission—the state agency that investigates allegations against judges accused of misconduct. I sent the Commission evidence of the event for my judge, evidence of the campaign contributions, and evidence of the biased treatment. They waited FOUR months to respond. Then it came.
All nine professionals appointed to the Commission rejected my complaint via a template form letter. They said no action should be taken, and their decision is unappealable.
So here I am. After months of trying to heal from this horrific life experience, and going through all the proper channels to address public corruption – while knowing there are thousands of families who go through this awful court system every year, I see no choice but to work on my own plan for change. New Mexico’s Family Court was created over 30 years ago to bring resolution to families in conflict. Some lawyers, however, thrive in this conflict. And with judges who are too compromised to keep them in check, there is no hope for neutrality.
My judge is right now up for election, and she’ll win because nobody is running against her. But the thing is – this problem is so much bigger than one judge, one lawyer, or one case. Family Court is where people go when they're at the end of their rope. Family lawyers help people at their most vulnerable, and as professionals they have a choice: to fan the flames of hatred and fear, or recognize the lifelong trauma and damage they'll create by not focusing on cohesion and resolution. Judges are your last hope. Allowing them to take money from the lawyers who appear in their courtrooms every day not only corrupts their character but also corrupts our courts and any appearance of impartiality – in a system that's already inherently biased.
This abuse of power affects everyone – the adults who go through the system, our children who suffer under the conflict, even the legal professionals who see this corruption but conform and stay silent. No one wants to stand up to their friends or to people who have power over their livelihoods.
This is just one step. The fact that public financing is not an option for judicial campaigns is astounding. It’s well past time for change.
You can join me:
• Sign this petition to have our NM legislature and Governor create public financing for District Court Judges. I'll deliver it to each elected leader myself.
• Get updates: I'll regularly share progress made on reasonable steps that could help improve our system and would love to hear your own stories.
• Learn more about what public financing is from Common Cause.
• I’m hopeful that the legal professionals and leaders I respect will see this, agree that our system provides a breeding ground for unacceptable judicial bias, and join us in creating a path toward change.
If you have more specific questions, feel free to message me. I'd like to protect the privacy of loved ones involved. Thank you.