The Truth or Consequences City Commission tried to cut the municipal court’s budget during its May 12 meeting, but was blocked by Judge Beatrice Sanders’ citation of New Mexico’s constitutional separation-of-powers clause that forbids executive interference with the judiciary.
As a courtesy, Municipal Judge Beatrice Sanders appeared before the commission to provide information about the court’s budget for fiscal year 2021-2022. The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government with the executive branch, and the municipal court is not accountable to the city’s executive branch.
As a point of information, Sanders stated that her budget contained “no frills.”
Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister asked, “Is the employee training amount set in stone?”
Yes, Sanders said, “The training is mandatory, as set down by the [New Mexico] Supreme Court.”
Forrister also asked the judge about an increase in the number of court employees. Sanders explained that a part-time employee had been added to ensure the municipal court’s strict compliance with several time-consuming COVID-19 screening requirements handed down and rigorously enforced by the state Supreme Court.
City Commissioner Frances Luna asked Sanders why the court’s case numbers did not match the number of the prisoners whose housing and care the city is responsible for paying. Prisoner care comprises no part of Sanders’ budget.
“I will not answer any questions about money making,” Sanders said. “The court was not set up to be a money-making operation.”
The city’s executive branch cannot change, ask about or demand a change in the municipal court budget, due to the separation-of-powers clause in the state and U.S. Constitutions, Sanders pointed out. The municipal court is overseen by a district court judge, most recently Judge Matthew Reynolds, now deceased, Sanders said. Oversight is also provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The judge suggested that the commissioners consult with the New Mexico Municipal League if they needed further clarification about municipal court oversight.
Sanders also had to clarify for the city commissioners that she was not a city employee, as she had been characterized on the city’s preliminary budget documents. “I am an elected official,” she advised them.
Whitehead, undaunted by separation-of-powers warnings, twice asked Sanders to meet with City Manager Bruce Swingle and Finance Director Carol Kirkpatrick to go over the court’s budget. “We’re asking everyone to cut,” Whitehead repeated.
Sanders finally relented. She suggested that Swingle could “make an appointment,” and she would do her best to clarify any lingering confusion about the court’s budget.
In an interview with the Sun, Sanders said that, during her 30 years as municipal judge, she has been regularly confronted by the T or C city commission, always with the intent of reducing the court budget. “I’ve always done my best to keep costs down,” Sanders said, “and I always turn in money at the end of the year.”
The 2021-2022 expenses for the court are projected at nearly $234,000, about $15,000 less than the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.