Espanola Municipal Court Judge Stephen S. Salazar/Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Municipal Judge Stephen S. Salazar has resigned from his office pursuant to a stipulation to permanent resignation in lieu of further disciplinary proceedings he signed with the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission. Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez confirmed Monday morning that a letter of resignation from Salazar was hand-delivered to his office Friday afternoon. As part of the stipulation, Salazar can never hold judicial office in New Mexico and cannot even officiate at weddings.
The stipulation was approved by the State Supreme Court Friday by Justices Barbara J. Vigil, Justice C. Shannon Bacon, Justice David K. Thomson and Justice Julie Vargas, with Chief Justice Michael Vigil recused.
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts also confirmed Monday that Chief Supreme Court Justice Michael E. Vigil had received the letter email. Documents received by the Los Alamos Reporter reveal that Salazar received a notice of investigation from the Judicial Standards Commission (JSC) in February 2020 in connection with a December 2019 incident where Salazar “willfully and aggressively” shoved City of Espanola employee Arturo Meza after Meza placed a lollipop in Salazar’s jacket pocket as a prank at the Lowes Home Improvement store in Espanola. The documents from the JSC indicate that Salazar turned to Meza’s supervisor who was present and requested that Meza’s conduct be documented and reported. The documents state that as Meza walked away, Salazar grabbed him by the shoulder with one hand and then struck him with the other.
The JSC viewed Salazar’s actions as willful misconduct. In consideration of his judicial disciplinary history before the Supreme Court, he agreed to resign permanently prior to 5 p.m. Friday, March 26.
In his response to the JSC, Salazar called Meza’s attempted prank “a very serious act”.
“If I had been accused of shoplifting, I would have been arrested. Being arrested would have resulted in a criminal charge. It would have been front page news, which would have eroded public confidence in the judiciary, even though I had committed no crime. In addition to that his irresponsible action could have resulted in extreme humiliation to me, my family and the Court. I would have had to spend money on an attorney to defend myself,” Salazar said.
Salazar noted that Meza started to walk away from him laughing.
“My reaction was instinctual. I stepped away from the register and pushed him. I warned his that my position as Municipal Judge us a position that does not allow me to willfully break any laws. I told him his actions to stuff my pocket with unpaid-for store merchandise was a serious matter with potentially severe consequences to me,” he said.
Mayor Sanchez told the Los Alamos Reporter Monday morning that Court records have been secured and Court Administrator Anna Squires is working to ensure a smooth transition. He said the City’s Attorney Nancy Long is researching the appropriate action for the City in response to the resignation.
The Municipal Court notified Espanola Police Chief Roger Jimenez and Deputy Chief Jones March 4 that all citations and criminal complaints should be filed in the Rio Arriba Magistrate Court from March 8 through April 9 to allow the Municipal Court to conduct an “essential” internal audit on all active Court files including trials.
The stipulation is not Salazar’s first involvement with the JSC. In 2006 and 2007, inquiries found that Salazar had willfully failed to afford due process of law to criminal defendants such as depriving them of the right to counsel and the right to trial. The JSC also found in prior case that Salazar willfully used his judicial office to assist a party’s interest in a domestic violence matter to try and locate the other party at a domestic violence shelter. He was placed on suspension for 90 days and on probation or the remainder of his four-year term. He was still on probation for that incident when he also faced sanctions in a 2010 incident where he signed an order instructing a towing company to return a motorcycle that had been towed away during a criminal case in Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court and embossed the Municipal Court’s seal on it.