District Judge resigns after questions raised about nepotism rule


The 3rd Judicial District Court is looking for a new judge in 2024 following the resignation of its most recent appointment. Mark Standridge, a former Las Cruces City Attorney and Assistant United States Attorney, left the court on Dec. 15 after resigning on Nov. 15.

The resignation triggers a lengthy process to fill the vacancy as the court grapples with a high caseload and new rules that change court operations.

Interviews and public records show that Standridge resigned because the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) said he and his wife, an attorney and court employee for 16 years, could not work in the same courthouse. Initially, AOC said that Standridge’s wife could transfer to a nearby court, such as the 12th Judicial District in Alamogordo. But Standridge’ chose to resign instead. 

“My overriding concern was I cannot be someone who pushes his wife out of her 16-year job just to stay a judge,” Standridge said.

Big courthouse changes 

The resignation came during a transformative year for the District Court.

A backlog of cases flooded the court starting in 2020 after the state Supreme Court halted many proceedings to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A rise in some crimes in Las Cruces and a shortage of law enforcement officers and prosecutors also contributed to delays.

In some instances, people charged with first- and second-degree felonies waited years for trial. Four people – all accused of murder – were held in jail for over a thousand days because of the delay, according to District Court records.

The state Supreme Court instituted a “case management order” to address the backlog in 2023. The order, sometimes called a CMO or case management rule, seeks to resolve cases faster by forcing prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to adhere to strict deadlines.

The order has also likely led to dozens of case dismissals, although 3rd Judicial District Attorney Gerald Byers has said his office doesn’t track the number of dismissals. Two other courts in New Mexico have CMOs, including the district court in Albuquerque.

While Standridge primarily oversaw domestic violence cases, he also oversaw some criminal cases, especially in the early arraignment phase. But with his exit on Dec. 15, the court will be left one judge short for months.

Emails outline AOC’s position

Emails between Standridge and AOC Director Artie Pepin detailed Standridge’s concerns and AOC’s response.

Pepin said that AOC, which oversees administrative operations for most New Mexico courts, enforced a long-established rule regarding nepotism. 

“For many years, the nepotism rule has been applied in New Mexico courts to serve two important purposes,” Pepin said. “One, (to) prevent favoritism in the employment of family members of judges and, two, to prevent the perception of favoritism that employees and the public may have due to the potential that a judge’s position in a court provides the judge with the ability to exercise influence to favor a family member employed at the court.”

When asked why he believed enforcing the rule was fair – given that Standridge did not oversee his spouse, nor would he- and given the impact of losing a judge amid high caseloads – Pepin said that creating an exception would do more harm than good.

“Creating an exception in this one circumstance would not serve to remedy those larger issues. However, an exception could undermine the larger purpose of the rule, which is to protect against even a hint of partiality,” Pepin said.

In emails exchanged with Pepin, Standridge said he was not informed working in the same courthouse as his wife would be a problem until March 2023 – months after he’d applied for the appointment. Pepin said he’d ask for the rule to be more explicit in future judge trainings. 

Standridge said he understood AOC’s position but still felt it missed something.

“It doesn’t take into account realities of a small-town district,” Standridge said.  

What’s next for the vacant seat?

The process to fill Standridge’s seat has already begun.

The Third Judicial District Court Judicial Nominating Commission, a temporary board of area lawyers and judges, announced four candidates for the vacancy. The names are:

- Phyl Bean, a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office and former public defender,

- Rebecca Duffin, a judge in the Doña Ana County Magistrate Court,

- Isabel Jerabek, an attorney for the District Court,

- Jeanne Quintero, a former magistrate judge

The Commission will interview all four candidates on Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. at the district courthouse at 201 W. Picacho Avenue. The Commission will then nominate one of the four. The nomination is then sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who either makes the appointment or calls on the Commission to give her new names.

Once a judge is appointed, they must run in a general election at least one year after their appointment.

Any qualified candidate who wishes to challenge them in an open election can file to run. Candidates must be at least 35 years old, have practiced law for six years before assuming office, have been a New Mexico resident for three years, and reside in the judicial district.

District judges then serve six-year terms. To keep their seats, the incumbent judge must receive at least 57 percent of the vote in a retention election at the end of their term. If the voting public rejects them, then the process of appointment and election starts anew.