District attorney candidates Mary Carmack-Altwies, lower left, and Scott Fuqua participate in the May 4 League of Women Voters candidates forum via Zoom. Also pictured are, LWVLA timekeeper Lynn Jones, top left, and moderator Barbara Calef. Screenshot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Attorneys Mary Carmack-Altwies and Scott Fuqua are both seeking the office of district attorney for the First Judicial District which will be vacated Dec. 31 by current DA Marco Serna who is in the race for the Congressional District 3 seat. Both participated in the May 4 candidates forum presented by the League of Women Voters-Los Alamos via Zoom.
Carmack-Altwies said she is a career lawyer who started out as a public defender in Albuquerque and then moved on to having her own practice where she practiced all over the state in criminal defense for a little over 10 years.
“A little over a year ago I got recruited by the district attorney’s office to come and run the special victims and violent crimes unit. I got recruited because they recognized that I had trial experience and management experience that the office badly needed,” she said.
She noted that in that year she started a program to train all attorneys and support staff once a week (obviously prior to the pandemic) on all kinds of trial issues and case analysis issues.
“I’m also starting a mentorship program so that we have our more experienced attorneys working and paired with our less experienced attorneys so that they learn how to do this job. It’s a very difficult job and it is the job that is the chief law enforcement officer of the entire First Judicial District – all three counties, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos – and it needs somebody that understands criminal law on both sides, that understands the players, the judges, the different attorneys that participate in the system. And I am that person,” Carmack-Altwies said.
She said she has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Firefighters Union in Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Los Alamos. I am very proud of those endorsements and I think that speaks to the fact that I bring a lot of experience and a lot of respect to the table and I can bring people together to improve the office of district attorney.
Fuqua said he is an attorney in Santa Fe and has been there for the last 14 years and has been an attorney for about 20 years. He said he came back to New Mexico after five years away working for a law firm in Dallas, Texas, to take a job in the attorney general’s office.
“While I was there I worked in the litigation division for almost the entirety of Gary King’s two terms. I was a staff attorney for the first three years and the director of that division for the following four years. In my capacity as director I had the opportunity to manage at any given moment give or take about 18 attorneys and staff members and managed all the state’s litigation statewide for the attorney general’s office,” he said.
He said he also had the opportunity to argue in from of the state supreme court for about 40 cases and to brief probably about 200 more.
“I’d say the case that I’m most proud of was having the chance to be one of several attorneys who successfully in the New Mexico Supreme Court argued the issue of the constitutional right to marry a person of choice regardless of gender,” Fuqua said.
He said the thing that speaks most to the work he did in the attorney general’s office is the fact that he has received endorsements from four recently retired supreme court justices who he said recognized not just what he brought to the table in the courtroom but recognized the managerial and leadership skills he developed and displayed when he was at the attorney general’s office.
“Something I learned when working at the attorney’s office and managing at the attorney general’s office is how to get the most out of the least because one of the biggest things that law enforcement agencies all over the country have to deal with is limited resources. The attorney general’s office is the chief law enforcement office for the state of New Mexico and has the limited resources that every law enforcement agency has to deal with. In the face of those types of resource the best thing that you can do is help people in that office who are doing the work of the state do their jobs effectively and get the best you can out of those people. I was successfully able to do that for four years,” Fuqua said.
He said that kind of leadership is critical to the success of the district attorney and that kind of experience is on of biggest things he brings to the table.
Fuqua and Carmack-Altwies answered questions related to various facets of the district attorney’s office, including of course, what improvements they believe are needed in that office.
Fuqua said he felt one of the big things structurally is the manner in which cases are assigned.
“I think it’s important as a practical matter to make sure that the attorneys that are in court day after day, on the ground, the ones doing the real rubber meets the road type of work are stretched as (little) as possible. I say that because the case load is enormous and there are significant demands on the time and the attention of the people who are doing that work,” he said.
Fuqua said one of the to help alleviate some of that pressure is to make sure as much as possible that people don’t have the be in more than one courtroom at the same time.
“One easy way to do that is to assign attorneys as much as possible to judges as opposed to assigning them across the board on a particular class of case that might lead to the kind of situation where they’re having difficulty meeting their obligations in multiple court rooms,” he said. “The biggest thing that needs to change is office needs some direction. There’s been a leadership vacuum over the last year or so and that vacuum needs to be filled by somebody that understands how to manage an office of that size. Those are skills that I honed and displayed successfully at the attorney general’s office that I look forward to bringing to the district attorney’s office.”
Carmack-Altwies said attorneys are already being assigned by courtroom.
“So that’s not actually a problem that’s happening at the district attorney’s office which is something I know because I work in that office,” she said.
She said the issues that need to be dealt with are that the office has an incredibly high volume of cases which is because it has not had a functioning, beefed up intake process.
“What that means is when cases come in they have just been assigned to attorneys and they are supposed to see them all the way through. The way that I am attempting to change the office already and the way that I will change the office is that there will be frontline screeners,” Carmack-Altwies said.
She said she is part of that process now in the violent crimes unit to take on those cases.
“We have to make sure that the police have done everything that they need to do, make sure that we make contact with victims in every single case and make sure that the are viable cases. And if they are viable cases then they need to get assigned out to attorneys and get taken on. If they’re not viable, they need to be sent back to the law enforcement agencies so that they can continue their investigation and make these cases better,” Carmack-Altwies said. “We need more quality prosecution rather than quality so that means focusing our resources on the resources that are winnable, that are good and that will make a difference in the community and not focusing so much on the cases that are low-level drug offenses or very low-level cases.”
The full district attorney’s forum may be viewed at https://my.lwv.org/new-mexico/los-alamos/article/view-candidates-forums