The Albuquerque Tribune issued its 2006 Voter Guide, today (Oct. 10, 2006), and the two candidates for a contested Metropolitan Court judgeship were asked a pair of interesting questions relating to access to justice. (On the basis of their answers to the Tribune, I know which judge I’d be voting for next month.)
Incumbent Metro Court Judge Clyde DeMersseman (Republican) is being challenged by Rachel I. Walker Al-Yasi (Democrat), an attorney in private practice, for the Division 17 Metro Court Judgeship. The first question asks how this “people’s court” could be made more user-friendly and the second asks about raising the dollar limits in this court, which serves as a small claims court.
Question One: Metro Court is often referred to as a “people’s court” for civil cases. Do you think the system is intimidating to the general public and, if so, how would you make it more user-friendly?
Clyde DeMersseman‘s response: “The judicial process is intimidating for many individuals, including some lawyers. The judge’s role in the “people’s court” is to ensure that everyone gets their day in court to tell their side of the story. This role is made more difficult in Metropolitan Court because most litigants are not represented by lawyers.
“When forced to represent oneself in this strange setting, it is not surprising that the court and its procedures such as the rules of procedure and evidence seem foreign and intimidating. However, by law, judges of the Metropolitan Court are required to apply these rules to ensure that all litigants get a fair trial.
“As a judge, I attempt to ease the litigant’s anxiety by holding detailed pre-trial conference early in the case.
“This often requires that I walk a fine line between advising parties of the rules of the court while remaining fair and impartial so as to not act as the attorney for one side or the other. At these pre-trials, I explain the rules that must be followed in court, hand out user-friendly versions of these rules, and let the parties know that if they need my intervention in the case at any time all they need to do is file something in writing.
“I also make the parties aware the assistance that exists, such as the court’s pro-se law office and pre-printed materials.”
Rachel I. Walker Al-Yasi‘s response: “The civil division is already user-friendly, with forms that someone with a non-law background can fill out. I would make it more user-friendly with more education as to how the process works for all litigants. I believe all parties coming in front of the bench deserve justice and respect from the bench. I will serve the community well as well as the court.”
How to File a Civil Lawsuit
How to Answer a Civil Lawsuit
What is Discovery?
Commonly Used Motions and Forms
Pretrial and Trial Process
Collecting on a Judgment
Landlord’s Restitution Process
Tenant’s Restitution Process
Question Two: The District 17 Metro Court judge handles civil cases up to $10,000 in value. There have been failed efforts recently in the Legislature to increase that amount. Where do you stand on the issue of limiting the court’s monetary limit and why?
Judge DeMersseman’s reply: “The monetary limit should be raised to $ 25,000. This would allow litigants to choose between filing their cases in District Court with its mandatory mediation provisions or filing in Metropolitan Court and proceeding to trial. Currently, the average time until trial in the Civil Division is three months after the case is answered, so adding these additional cases would still result in having a trial date sooner than in District Court.
“However, the number of additional cases filed under an increased limit would need to be tracked and matched with additional court resources if the numbers are overwhelming.”
Rachel I. Walker Al-Yasi’s reply: “I oppose any increase, because it would increase the burden on an already overburdened court. Litigants deserve to have their cases heard, quickly and fairly with justice and respect.”
Note: The legal reform group HALT has a Small Claims project which has among its goal increasing the dollar limit to $20,000, saying “Raising these small claims dollar limits is a critical first step to opening up the system.” HALT issued Small Claims Report Cards for each state in both 2002 and 2004 (national summary for 2004 is here; HALT says the overall picture is still “dismal“). Because the $10,000 limit is one of the highest in the nation, New Mexico’s Report Card, with a B- grade, was 5th highest in the nation. However, HALT faulted the NM small claims process for not having advisors to help claimants, not having weekend or night sessions, and not helping in the collection process.