For 20 years, Eugenio S. Mathis was a pillar of the legal system in Las Vegas, serving as a referee to opposing attorneys, settling family disputes and meting out punishment to defendants.
That all came to a crashing halt on Thursday afternoon with news that the state Judicial Standards Commission had targeted him for removal from the bench for misconduct.
To settle the case, Mathis agreed to resign his position as a District Court judge. The state Supreme Court signed off on that agreement Thursday afternoon and further ordered that he never again hold judicial office in New Mexico. The resignation was effective at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
For Mathis, who grew up on the west side and graduated from Stanford University and then the University of New Mexico School of Law, it was no doubt a devastating blow.
“While my legacy is almost assuredly tarnished by these recent events, I am proud of the many accomplishments that occurred during my tenure,” Mathis told the Optic in a statement emailed late Saturday. “The most notable being the construction of the new courthouse, the establishment of the third judgeship and the selection of the Fourth Judicial District as the first court to implement the statewide court management system.”
Mathis concluded his remarks by emphasizing his dedication to the job.
“Despite what the public perception may be, I was a conscientious and hardworking judge,” he said.
Mathis, 58, said he plans to practice law and serve as a mediator.
Abigail Aragon, chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, said Mathis announced his resignation to court staff at around 3 p.m. Thursday.
“I think the court staff is quite shocked and disappointed, but they’re ready to move forward,” she said.
Mathis’ caseload is being redistributed between Aragon and Judge Matthew Sandoval.
“This week I’ll be handling his criminal docket,” Aragon said. “There were civil cases we’ve continued. We’re just going to continue to work together, Judge Sandoval and I, to make sure we handle all emergencies and to assure that people have their day in court.”
In the end, it was a self-inflicted wound — in the form of instant messages — that ended Mathis’ judicial career and has his wife, a supervisor in the Court Clerk’s Office, in hot water with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Transcripts of those instant messages reveal that Mathis and his wife, Michelle Pino-Mathis, were constantly exchanging instant messages during work hours, a violation of the state judiciary’s computer and internet use policy. Their exchanges provide an unvarnished view of their colleagues, attorneys, parties and others.
Documents unsealed by the Supreme Court late Thursday reveal that the AOC is conducting its own investigations and that Mathis’ wife was placed on paid administrative leave on Feb. 12. The document states that the leave was set to expire today.
Pino-Mathis’ status with the courts is unclear. Aragon said she couldn’t comment because it’s a personnel matter.
Mathis said he had been planning to step down from the bench even before he learned that he was a target of an investigation by the Judicial Standards Commission, the state entity that polices judges.
Mathis said he initiated the retirement process with the Public Employees Retirement Association on Feb. 14, four days before he was notified of the commission’s investigation.
Mathis said he and the commission entered into an agreement on Feb. 21. As part of that agreement, Mathis admitted eight of the allegations levied against him and denied the rest.
The commission alleged that Mathis committed acts that constitute willful misconduct in office, accusing him of 28 instances of wrongdoing.
Mathis admitted to:
• Violating the judicial branch computer and internet use policy.
• Making disparaging remarks to his wife, a court employee, about individuals who were in supervisory positions over her, to include the chief judge and other judges sitting in the 4th Judicial district, the court manager and the acting CEO/CFO.
• Exchanging excessive and improper instant messages with his wife while he was presiding over trials, hearings and other court proceedings
• Referring to parties in a domestic violence case over which he was presiding, as “chingado” or as acting crazy.
• Referring to a petitioner in a name change case over which he was presiding as “weird.”
• Failing to cooperate with other judges and court officials in the 4th Judicial District in the proper and orderly administration of court business.
• Making remarks in instant messages to his wife manifesting bias, prejudice and harassment concerning court employees and supervisors.
• Repeatedly making judicial statements concerning pending cases, to include cases over which he was presiding.
The 4th Judicial District encompasses the counties of San Miguel, Mora and Guadalupe.
Mathis was elected to the bench in November 1992, and voters retained him in 1996, 2002 and 2008.
He served as chief district judge from 2005 until 2009, when he stepped down from the post because his wife works for the court and the state Supreme Court took the position that Mathis’ being his wife’s supervisor appeared improper.
Pino-Mathis worked as Mathis’ assistant since 2001, and he married her in August 2008.
In order to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision, Mathis’ wife was transferred to a supervisory job in the court clerk’s office in 2009. But because the court clerk’s office is supervised by the chief judge, Mathis was forced to relinquish his position as the 4th Judicial District’s chief judge.
Mathis was admitted to the bar in 1979 and practiced law for 13 years.
When a judicial vacancy like this occurs, the state Judicial Nominating Commission solicits applications, interviews candidates and forwards recommendations to the governor. The governor can then appoint someone to fill the vacancy, although her choices are limited to the pool of applicants recommended by the nominating commission.
The person appointed by the governor will then have to run for retention in the next general election, which will be in November of 2014.
Aragon said the dean of the UNM School of Law, who chairs the nominating commission, has already contacted her and is hoping to begin interviewing candidates on March 28 and 29.
“I just hope that this does not detract from all the hard work and the dedication of the court employees, Judge Sandoval, and myself,” Aragon said, referring to Mathis’ troubles.