The Municipal Court represents the City of Roswell’s judicial branch of government. Similar to the structure at the state and federal levels of government, the city’s judicial branch joins the legislative (City Council) and executive (mayor and city manager) branches to complete this governmental trio. However, the Municipal Court operates independently from the other branches of government.
The Municipal Judge, an elected official, has responsibility for all aspects of the court and its operational needs. As a separate branch of government, the judge has decision-making authority on behalf of the court comparable to that held by the city manager regarding administrative decisions for the city. The Municipal Judge administers the court’s policies and procedures, as well as overseeing the court’s budget and employees. While the court is independent, it does rely on many other city departments to support its operations.
The court’s guidance comes from the U.S. Constitution and the State of New Mexico Constitution and it must follow specific rules and procedures set by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
“The Municipal Court can be relied on as a place where citizens can have their matter or dispute addressed by a fair and impartial process,” says Municipal Judge Joseph Seskey. “The court has many purposes, including ensuring all persons have access to a fair and impartial forum in which to resolve their legal dispute and to ensure each individual’s rights under the law are preserved. It is paramount that the court conduct business in a manner that promotes efficiency, transparency and a timely disposition to all cases filed.
“The Municipal Court is committed to ensuring that we are operating and employing best practices in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of New Mexico and that we are further committed to being a fair and impartial and independent judiciary.”
Deputy Court Clerk Dina Coffing, Judge Joseph Seskey and Bailiff Ron Garcia.
The usual court day begins with arraignments of individuals incarcerated at the Chaves County Detention Center. These defendants are seen remotely by video connection. Once video arraignments are completed with the jail, arraignments begin for defendants who are not in jail, but have been cited to appear in court to answer charges to violations of traffic or criminal ordinances. Arraignments are a process in which a person is formally advised of the charge and the maximum penalty the court could impose. The defendant is also advised of his or her rights and asked to enter a plea. The court day then transitions to pre-trial status hearings with attorneys and prosecutors who appear before the judge to provide an update on the status of cases moving through the court system. Afternoons are reserved for all trial matters.
While the order of things remains fairly standard, each day in Municipal Court is unique and varied because of the constant rotation of different cases initiated and filed into the court for adjudication. The Municipal Court hears misdemeanor violations of Roswell’s city ordinances. Cases may be initiated and filed for prosecution from the Police Department, Code Enforcement, Zoning, and Animal Services.
The Municipal Court handles all this with a staff 10 people: the municipal judge, a court administrator, four deputy court clerks, one court bailiff, two court compliance officers and an alternate judge.
The Municipal Judge is an elected position and serves four-year terms. Judge Joseph Seskey was hired as an Alternate Judge in 2016 and was appointed the full-time Municipal Judge in 2019 when the City Council approved the mayor’s recommendation. He was then elected in March 2020.
Court Administrator Belinda Franco is the court’s longest continuously serving employee. She has been with the court for more than 15 years. Bailiff Ron Garcia had previously served in various city departments since 2001 and joined Municipal Court in 2017. Jim Huebner, Court Compliance Officer, had previous city employment totaling 29 years before joining the court in 2015. Dina Coffing has served in her position as Deputy Court Clerk since 2013. Lea Ross has served as Deputy Court Clerk since 2015. Compliance Officer Maria Ordonez has been with the court since 2018. Deputy Court Clerks Christina Sedillo and Sonia Ramirez were hired in 2020. Retired Roswell Municipal Judge Lou Mallion currently serves as an Alternate Judge. In addition to serving as bailiff, Ron Garcia is also an Alternate Judge.
Employees handle a variety of assignments each day. Court Clerks and the Bailiff are cross-trained to know each others’ job and can step in and fill any assignment as needed. On any given day, Court Clerks may be assigned to the customer-service window assisting users of the court, taking payments for fines and conducting data entry. On a daily basis, they prepare warrants and summonses for signature by the judge, prepare subpoenas and court orders, assist the judge in the courtroom while court is in session, complete scheduling of hearings and prepare cases for trial, receive and process motions and pleadings from defendants, attorneys and prosecutors, and process license suspensions through the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
The Court Administrator reports to the Municipal Judge and directly supervises the Court Clerks, the Bailiff and the Court Compliance Officers. The Court Administrator has responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the court and also handles matters related to human resources, court payroll, budget and requisition, billing and invoices, finance and court records.
Court Compliance Officers meet daily with defendants and monitor their completion of community-service hours and defendants’ conditions of home confinement, meet with defendants with pre-trial reporting requirements and supervise defendants serving conditions of probation imposed by the court.
Each employee’s assignment is crucial to the overall success of the court. Court employees are fluent in court operations and the complex legal requirements for court processes, ensuring the entire team is operating at a high level of efficiency and expertise. The use of court software helps the court manage and track cases. Accuracy is of extreme importance and clerks often double- and triple-check their work.
Municipal Judges and any Alternate Judges attend yearly training and certification programs sponsored by the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts and the UNM School of Law. Court Clerks and Bailiffs attend yearly training sponsored by the Municipal Court Clerks Association. Court Administrator Belinda Franco serves on the New Mexico Court Clerks Education Planning Committee. Compliance Officer Maria Ordonez is currently obtaining her certification as a Spanish Language Court Interpreter through a program administered by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Court translators and interpreters must be state-certified to work in the courts. This certification will allow Ordonez to provide translation services in any New Mexico court.
The Municipal Court team enjoys working together to make the court the best it can be. The staff also enjoys other endeavors that bring them together, such as promoting wellness initiatives to encourage reducing stress and living a healthier lifestyle. The court staff has had weight-loss competitions and took on other dietary challenges.
“Some of us ate only salad or soup for an entire month,” Judge Seskey explains. “We tried drinking a gallon of water a day for two weeks, which we found is not that easy.” Judge Seskey adds, “We are trying to walk as a group for a minimum of 15 minutes per day as the weather permits.”
Meanwhile, the staff engages in team-building exercises that test their brains and ability to think on their feet.
An additional aspect of operating Municipal Court these days relates to COVID-19. The court receives guidance on COVID policies from the New Mexico Supreme Court. Where possible, all courts in New Mexico are required to offer defendants and other users of the court all means necessary to have their matter addressed by remote means. The Roswell Municipal Court is able to conduct most business through GoToMeeting video and telephonic appearances. The court remains open to the public, but must limit the number of people allowed in the courtroom to a total of 11 at a given time. Phone or video options are made available to additional people wanting to view any proceedings. Those entering the facility at 420 N. Richardson Ave. must wear a mask and are required to answer a COVID screening questionnaire and have their temperature taken. If they are permitted to enter the courtroom, they must sign in and are directed to an assigned seat. Cleaning and sanitizing is done multiple times each day and the frequency of a company cleaning the entire building has been increased.