A former state prosecutor has filed a complaint lawsuit alleging she was fired for raising concerns about conflicts of interest in a case involving Court of Appeals Judge Gerald E. Baca, fourth district attorney Thomas Clayton and his predecessor, the former -prosecutor Richard Flores.
Attorney Pilar Murray said in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the state’s District Court that Baca, then a district judge in northeastern New Mexico, refused to withdraw from a case involving a defendant he represented while working privately.
Her bosses, Clayton and Flores — both employees at Baca’s law firm, according to the lawsuit — fired her when she didn’t drop the matter.
“For her, there was tremendous frustration with what appeared to be a network of good old kids operating in Las Vegas, New Mexico’s elected officials,” said Murray’s attorney Levi Monagle.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham nominated Baca – who has been a judge in the District Court since 2013 – to a vacancy in the Court of Appeals in March.
Flores served 16 years as district attorney before deciding not to run for a fifth term in 2020. Clayton was elected to the position in November.
Baca did not respond to the message requesting comment, but Administrative Office of Courts Spokesperson Barry Massey said: “There are courts to resolve these types of disputes and it would be inappropriate to comment on the merits of the action because it is a pending legal issue and the judge is not named as the defendant in the action”.
Flores did not respond to a message asking for comment. Clayton said he could not comment on pending litigation and referred the issues to a lawyer, who also declined to comment.
According to her complaint, Murray was hired with the 4th District Attorney in July 2019. During an indictment the following month, Baca, who was presiding over the case, asked questions that gave her reason to believe he was not impartial at the time of the incident. . defendant Daniel Yara, who faced three criminal charges.
Murray said in her complaint that she soon learned that Baca represented Yara on several occasions before taking office, and she believed the judge lacked impartiality when it came to the defendant.
When she raised the issue with Clayton – the then deputy head of the prosecution – he said that “it’s the policy of this office never to turn down Judge Baca,” the lawsuit says.
Clayton instructed her to “invite” Baca to withdraw from the case, Murray’s lawsuit says, “but forbade her to file a motion stating reasons.”
In an audio recording of a status hearing in the case, Murray can be heard raising the issue. She said she noticed during an earlier hearing that the judge appeared to be familiar with the disagreements between Yara and the alleged victim in the case. Yara was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after being accused of threatening his neighbor with a knife.
Murray told the judge he wanted to know how he could know about the history between the two men and directed the team members to research the matter. They found that Baca represented Yara in at least one case in 2004.
“I would like to know if the court would consider apologizing in the case because you previously represented Mr. Yara and you seem to remember the contentious history between the [the defendant and the victim]. “
According to the audio recording, Baca said he didn’t remember saying anything during the hearing and didn’t remember Yara’s story. He asked Murray to file a motion on the matter within 10 days.
Murray said yes, according to the recording.
But in his complaint, Murray says he did not file one “because he was prohibited from doing so by his supervisor” – Clayton.
Murray’s complaint says the issue resurfaced a few months later, when Baca presided over another Yara indictment on new charges of theft and bribery of a witness.
According to the lawsuit, Murray raised the issue again and Baca refused to withdraw from the case either. The complaint says the ruling “deepenned” his belief that Baca was acting in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
The code says that judges must refuse when there is a conflict, but it does not specifically say that a judge must refuse if he or she represented a party. Massey said the code allows for some discretion.
According to the complaint, Murray in February 2020 wrote an email to her bosses, asking to be removed from Yara’s case and repeated her belief that it was a conflict of interest for Baca to preside over the case.
Less than a month later, Clayton walked into her office and fired her, according to the complaint. When she asked for a reason, she received a letter saying that she served as per the prosecutor’s wishes.
Yara’s case was settled by a plea agreement in April, in which he did not contest the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He received 18 months of probation and a probation, meaning that if he successfully completed probation, he would not have a felony conviction on his record.
Murray, who is in his 50s, was a lawyer for more than 10 years before moving from Alamogordo to Las Vegas to work at the prosecutor’s office, Monagle said.
Since she was laid off in the midst of the pandemic, she has had a hard time finding a new job, Monagle said. She asks to be compensated for past and future wages and emotional distress.
“Pilar did what we teach our children to do, what we teach our law students to do, what we teach everyone to do in a democratic society,” said Monagle. “You see what you perceive as misconduct and report it. She was punished for it. If we believe that these values of equal justice for all are worth defending equal treatment under the law, we need to protect whistleblowers and ensure that the nail remains up is not hammered. “