Inside the Capitol

Monday, July 05, 2004

Judge Drug Bust to Have Far-Reaching Effects

SANTA FE – The drug scandal set off by Judge John Brennan’s arrest on cocaine possession will have far-reaching effects on New Mexico’s political system.

Expect to see investigations, new rules and regulations, proposed laws, genuine concern, demagoguery, evasion of issues and invasion of privacy.

The investigations came first. How could something like this happen? How could the most distinguished jurist on the Bernalillo County District Court get away with drug use over a period of many years? Friends, colleagues and employees had to know. Those within the justice system are required to report such things. And where would the chief judge of a district court buy cocaine?

Those questions and many more have been asked, especially on Albuquerque talk radio, where the mood has been one of a complete loss of faith in the judicial system. But elsewhere, there seems to be little outrage. The legal and judicial communities have been strangely quiet. And other than radio, so has the media.

The one exception is Larry Barker, ace investigative reporter for KRQE-TV in Albuquerque. Barker managed to get his hands on a confidential 1988 report written by a state Department of Public Safety employee, assigned to work with a federal drug task force. The employee interviewed people who said they had knowledge of four judges and some defense attorneys who did drugs.

That report was submitted to the federal panel, which did not follow up on it. It was not reported to state law enforcement authorities since it was prepared for a federal agency. And besides, it was very preliminary in nature and based largely on hearsay.

But a copy of the report was filed away at the state Public Safety Department and apparently leaked to Barker as pertinent to Brennan’s case. And sure enough, Brennan was one of the four judges mentioned. Barker has not revealed any of the other names, but the appearance of Brennan’s name on the report gives it some credibility and indicates knowledge of Brennan’s problem at least six years ago.

The political community also has been rather quiet. The chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees have evaded the issue, as have other prominent lawmakers. The Albuquerque District Court reportedly has asked for an investigation, not of Brennan, but of how Barker got his information.

The Judicial Standards Commission apparently is looking at Brennan’s situation, but its procedures call for no progress reports until a decision is made. The state Supreme Court moved quickly to notify judges that they may be required to submit to drug tests and to remind judges, lawyers and court employees with specific knowledge of unlawful drug use by a judge that they must report it to the Judicial Standards Commission.

A few politicians have come forward, most notably Sen. Steve Komadina, a physician from Corrales. He will propose legislation setting up a system of voluntary drug tests for elected officials. Results would be posted on the secretary of state’s Web site. Those refusing to take the test would be so noted along with any explanation they might like to make.

How would an elected official explain a refusal? Privacy concerns are an issue with some elected officials, candidates and the general public. Unwarranted faith in biochemical testing, which can reveal false positives, is another. The further discouragement of finding good candidates to run for office is still another.

But Komadina has picked up some support from fellow Republicans. Eight GOP candidates, including two for the state Supreme Court, made a big production of taking drug tests last month.

And Gov. Bill Richardson has weighed in for Komadina’s legislation, also voicing his willingness to take a drug test. That may give the legislation some bipartisan support, but much more will be needed for it to have a chance of passage, without a significant amount of public outrage between now and Janua


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