Four district judge hopefuls await gov.’s decision

September 12, 2017 GMT

The Judicial Nominating Commission on Monday narrowed the field of applicants to replace retiring state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe, sending the names of four of the eight hopefuls to the governor for possible appointment.

Those short-listed for the judgeship after questioning by the commission were Paul W. Grace, Michael R. Jones, Jason Lidyard and Gregory Shaffer. Not getting the nod were Jerry Anthony Archuleta, Sean Michael Cunniff, Maria Sanchez-Gagne and Matthew E. Jackson.

Gov. Susana Martinez now has 30 days to appoint one of the applicants recommended by the commission, or ask for more nominees.

Whomever gets the appointment will be paid about $118,000 per year to preside over a docket of primarily civil cases in the First Judicial District, which includes Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties. If the appointee wants to keep the job, he or she would have to be elected in the 2018 general election, then stand for retention the 2020 election and every eight years thereafter.

Grace, 64, originally from Dunkirk, N.Y., has lived in Santa Fe since 2000, where he is an attorney with experience in commercial law — primarily banking and regulation — and appellate law. He sought appointments to the First Judicial District bench in 2014 and the state Supreme Court in 2015.

Grace, who has been practicing law for almost 39 years, wrote in his application that he has the “training, experience, and temperament to be a judge.”

Grace said he is a strong advocate for alternative dispute resolution programs, has worked as a settlement facilitator for the First Judicial District’s Alternative Resolution program and would like to see the expansion of programs that emphasize problem-solving outside the courtroom “to increase access to justice for more of our citizens while relieving the burden on traditional courts.”

Grace wrote that community service is a tradition in his family and “has always been more important to me than making money.” His application says Grace has been or is on the board of his temple, Congregation Beit Tikva, is president of Santa Fe American Little League and has served on the board of Warehouse 21 in the past.

Grace raised his two sons alone after his wife was killed in an automobile accident.

Jones, 47, is a partner in the Santa Fe law firm of Clark, Jones & Pennington, where he handles civil, criminal and family law cases. He formerly worked as an analyst for the state Senate Conservation Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also was an assistant attorney general and an assistant district attorney in Santa Fe and in Farmington.

“My legal career has given me a deep understanding of how the law impacts people’s lives,” Jones wrote in his application. “In my criminal practices, I have observed how a person’s actions have repercussions not only for themselves, but also to the victims of their crimes and the families of all involved. Working with clients in civil cases has demonstrated how important it is to allow people to have the opportunity to have their issues and concerns heard by the courts. Knowing that a judge is willing to hear their cases can help litigants to resolve matters on their own.”

Jones, originally from Wanseon, Ohio, has been practicing in New Mexico since 1999. “During that time,” he wrote, “I have had a diverse practice with clients including criminal clients, juveniles, corporations, individuals, the state of New Mexico and land grant members.”

When asked if anything in his personal life helped prepare him to be a judge, Jones said he has two sons, ages 5 and 8, and is called upon daily to mediate their frequent “spats.”

Lidyard, 36, is a deputy district attorney in Santa Fe who has handled primarily criminal cases and civil mental health commitments for the office since 2011.

He was born in Fairview, Ohio. He told the nominating commission his father was in the pipe fitters union and his mother cleaned houses while he grew up on the west side of Cleveland. His father developed a drug habit, which became fatal, Lidyard said, so his family moved in with his grandparents, who he said believed above all else in “loyalty to family and education.”

Lidyard said the novel To Kill a Mockingbird inspired him at a young age to want to join the legal profession, not because he idolized Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer who is a central figure in the book, but because he wanted to “battle injustice” and prevent the conviction of innocent people.

“From an early age I learned that ours is a nation of laws and that along with the law’s great potential to produce justice is the law’s inverse potential to produce injustice,” Lidyard wrote in his application. “When I began my practice of law, I pledged that so long as I work in this profession where my decisions will undoubtedly have consequences on the lives of others, I will use every power of my mind, my being and my heart to get those decisions right.”

Shaffer, 45, is the Santa Fe County attorney and former chief legal counsel for the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration. He also worked as deputy chief counsel at the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department and worked at several law firms in New York before moving to New Mexico in 2004.

“Industry has been a hallmark of my legal career,” Shaffer wrote in his application, “and I would bring the same work ethic to bench. The ultimate source of this industry is my mother. She cleaned other people’s homes and businesses to provide for me and my four older siblings after my father died in 1973, teaching me and my siblings the value of hard work (among many other things) in the process.”

Shaffer is the only nominee who has never tried a case in front of a jury. He told the commission he has developed many of the same skills he might have at trial as counsel for Santa Fe County government, where he often has to answer questions from policymakers and the public quickly and authoritatively and in such a way that a lay audience can understand the point of law at question.

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter at @phaedrann.