Española’s elected city judge, Stephen Salazar, was disciplined for ordering the owner of Aces Towing Co. to return a motorcycle that had been seized as part of a criminal case pending in another court, Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court. The motorcycle belonged to David Vigil, an acquaintance and a son of a member of Salazar’s church, El Buen Pastor.
Chief Justice Petra Maes admonished Salazar for various judicial errors, telling him that the five-justice panel had come very close to removing him from office.
“This is your last chance,” she warned.
In addition to approving disciplinary recommendations by the Judicial Standards Commission, the high court also ordered Salazar to reimburse the towing company owners $8,500 for their legal expenses in getting Salazar’s order overturned. The justices also informed Salazar that he can’t accept $7,700 in public funds that the Española City Council voted to provide for his legal bills in the case.
Salazar declined to comment to a reporter after Wednesday’s hearing, but told Maes that he he knows “how close I came to losing my job.” Salazar said he is going to “stand tall” and take responsibility for his actions, but that he never meant to give the judiciary a “black eye.”
During Wednesday morning’s hearing, the justices peppered Salazar’s attorney, Dan Cron, and the commission’s chief counsel, Robin Hammer, with questions and comments.
Justice Edward Chavez said it’s common in small towns for judges to succumb to pressure from acquaintances to rule certain ways.
Hammer responded, “This court cannot send the message that the rule of law doesn’t apply in Española because everybody knows each other.”
Justice Charles Daniels seemed particularly upset with Cron after the lawyer said he knew nothing about the Española City Council’s June 26 vote to use city funds to pay for Salazar’s legal bills. The Rio Grande Sun has reported that prior to authorizing the $7,700 legal reimbursement, the council agreed to spend $15,000 to defend Salazar in other legal matters with all of the money going to Cron.
Cron said that at the time Salazar issued the illegal order in the motorcycle case, the judge had begun carrying a pistol because of an anonymous death threat. “That affected his clarity of judgment,” Cron said. “He felt his family was at risk. He wasn’t sleeping. Judge Salazar is not like Judge Roy Bean. He doesn’t always carry a gun to work with him.”
In her final admonishment, Justice Maes told Salazar that he didn’t have the courage to be a judge. She said that when she was a state district judge in Rio Arriba County and acquaintances would approach her at her late husband’s bar to talk about pending cases, she would make it clear that she was not allowed to discuss such matters outside of court.
At the time Salazar signed the illegal order, he already was on probation for other misconduct — including improperly bringing religion into the court and using profane language — that required him to check in regularly with Peggy Nelson, a retired district judge from Taos. Salazar had been regularly communicating with Nelson, but he failed to contact her regarding the order to return the motorcycle. Hammer said this was because he had “a strong incentive to conceal any misconduct.”
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Maes told Cron to consult with Española City Attorney Frank Coppler over when Salazar’s unpaid 90-day suspension should begin. Coppler had suggested that it start July 30, allowing the Española City Council time to name a substitute municipal judge at its regular monthly meeting July 27.
Salazar, who is paid $38 an hour, or about $79,000 a year, left the Supreme Court with more than a dozen family members and friends. When a reporter asked his father, David Salazar, a trustee of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, about his son’s church, the younger Salazar drew his finger across his throat in an apparent signal to quit talking.
Outside the courtroom, Aces Towing’s owner, George Luna, and his son, David Luna, said they were happy the court ordered Salazar to reimburse them for their legal expenses in getting state District Judge Barbara Vigil to overturn Salazar’s order to release the motorcycle. But they said the court did not address other expenses Salazar had caused them.
They said they were banned for a year from the Española Police Department’s rotation for calling towing companies to assist in impounding vehicles because of the actions of former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., who is Salazar’s second cousin and a member of El Buen Pastor church. Block resigned his $90,000-a-year elected post last October after pleading guilty to fraudulently using a state gasoline-purchase card and other felonies. Block, who admitted being addicted to drugs, was jailed last weekend on a probation violation after testing positive for alcohol.
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or email@example.com.