The District Judicial Nominating Commission met at 9 a.m., Thursday, at the Chaves County Courthouse to select among four applicants to fill the vacancy for the 5th Judicial District Court Judge created by the death of Judge Ralph Shamas. The applicants under consideration were James L. Hudson, of Hinkle, Hensley, Shanor & Martin, LLP; Michael Murphy, chief deputy district attorney 5th Judicial District; John A. Phinizy II, assistant district attorney, 5th Judicial District; and Judy A. Pittman, Pittman Law Firm. After discussion in closed session, the committee recommended Hudson and Pittman as the names to put forward to the governor.
Barbara Bergman, dean of law from the University of New Mexico, officiated. She outlined the process for the committee and the members of the public. Each candidate was allotted 30 minutes for the interviews. The applicant was also given five minutes to address the committee. Meanwhile, each member of the committee was allowed a single question.
Controversy surrounded the eligibility of Phinizy who recently returned to his hometown of Roswell after practicing as an attorney for 35 years in state and federal courts in Texas. Phinizy is scheduled to take the state bar in less than two weeks. He told the committee that the statutes indicate that the applicant must be acting as an attorney and a resident of the district. They did not specify that the candidate must have taken the New Mexico state bar. Bergman agreed that the rules were vague.
Before the interviews, the floor was opened to the public to express their views. Three endorsed James L. Hudson, noting his service to the community. Five spoke for Pittman and one for Murphy and Phinizy. Tim Amos discussed his experiences working with Pittman as the father of a murder victim. After the death of his daughter, Susan Amos-Bravo, his family struggled to retain custody of her children. He spoke of Pittman’s bravery when she stared into the face of a killer (Raymon Bravo) and defended the Amos’ rights to keep their grandchildren.
The first to be interviewed was Phinizy. Tim Jennings asked, since Phinizy had spend most of his time as a prosecutor, whether he had experience in oil, gas and water rights. Others questioned his experience in family law and how he would deal with defendants.
Phinizy noted that as “a neophyte lawyer [he] worked with child protective services.” In regards to defendant rights, Phinizy said: “Each case is individual, which must be understood from the presumption of innocence.”
Hudson told the committee that Shamas would be a hard man to follow.
He credited his parents with providing him with a strong sense of family values. “I won’t tell you I’m perfect. … I’ve always endeavored to be the best attorney I can be.”
Roderick Kennedy inquired about how Hudson felt about dealing with people who reached the bottom of life and came from the bottom of society. He responded that it was important to allow them to have their day in court. Hudson was also asked about gaps in his knowledge in criminal and family law. “It’s going to take work on my part. I will be a work in progress.
Pittman spoke of her sympathy for those who faced court and the expense a lawsuit entailed for the litigants. “I believe that time is money.”
Luke Ragsdale questioned her lack of jury experience. Pittman stated that the rules of evidence and the rules of criminal procedure remained the same. Pauline Ponce asked what Pittman would do to prepare for a case. Pittman replied that in the past she had read some cases from beginning to end four or five times and she would continue to do the same.
Murphy referred to his experience both in civil law and in criminal law as a prosecutor. When questionned about his lack of defense work, he said: “The prosecutor is charged with doing justice. … Often I find that today’s defendant is tomorrow’s victim.”
In regards to juveniles and sentencing, Murphy acknowledged: “It is important to protect juvenile rights, but one must also look at personal history. … Children can get caught up in a particular lifestyle … very few cases are black and white.”