The New Mexico Supreme Court has publicly censured a state judge in Las Cruces for providing advice to prosecutors during a 2021 trial of a man accused of pointing an assault rifle at the judge’s daughter.
Third District Judge James Martin also was censured for allowing his daughter to wait in his chambers before she testified at the trial — which a visiting judge presided over after Martin had recused himself — and for having an inappropriate conversation with the prosecutors after Robert Burnham was convicted of aggravated assault by use of a firearm.
Martin accepted the court’s decision, the Supreme Court said. It said Martin “denied committing willful misconduct” but “viewed through the lens of hindsight … recognizes the potential for appearance of impropriety based upon his conduct.”
The justices said their decision, reached Nov. 13, was not selected for publication in the formal New Mexico Appellate Records. But it was made public this week and will be published in the New Mexico Bar Bulletin.
Martin did not immediately respond Thursday to The Associated Press’ requests for comment sent in an email and left in a telephone message at his office at the court, which was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Burnham is appealing the conviction stemming from a 2018 incident outside a Las Cruces bar he owned. He told police that he had recently won the rifle in a raffle and was just moving it inside his car.
The Supreme Court said after the first day of the two-day jury trial in 2021 — heard by Judge Steven Blankinship of the 12th District — that Martin telephoned Assistant District Attorney Samuel Rosten and told him he should use the phrase “brandished a firearm” in his jury instructions instead of “pointed a firearm” at the alleged victim, Martin’s daughter.
The next day the prosecution followed that advice.
Following the conviction, Martin inquired as to whether Burnham had been remanded to custody while awaiting sentencing. When Martin learned that he had, he told the prosecutors, “Good thing he was remanded, otherwise I would have told you to go back in there and try again.”
Martin improperly allowed his daughter to be present for that conversation. He also improperly allowed his daughter to wait in his chambers down the hall while waiting to be called as a witness at the trial, the high court said.
The justices said Martin originally provided advice to the prosecutors because he recognized a legitimate mistake of law in their proposed jury instructions.
“Judge Martin believed that he was acting in his daughter’s best interest by pointing out the mistake. Judge Martin’s actions created an appearance of impropriety, which should not be ignored,” Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon wrote in the decision joined by the four other justices.
“We issue this censure not only to remind judges of their responsibility to avoid the appearance of impropriety but also to ensure the public that our legal system is committed to maintaining an independent, fair and impartial judiciary under the law,” they said.