It wasn't a good day for New Mexico's judiciary when a district judge in Las Cruces, the state's second-largest city, was indicted last spring on bribery charges for allegedly soliciting campaign contributions in return for political favors.
Then things went from bad to worse. The special prosecutor handling the case demanded that the chief justice of the state Supreme Court recuse himself for allegedly having made prejudicial comments and rulings.
And then came the release of a secretly recorded audiotape in which the indicted judge, Michael Murphy, could be heard casually spouting barnyard profanities, racial epithets and homosexual slurs.
The scandal has reverberated statewide, with some seeing it as evidence of rampant judicial corruption. Murphy's allies portray it as little more than an indiscretion by someone caught talking out of school, and view the criminal charges as a broad interpretation of the bribery statute.
"I know people who think this is a partisan witch hunt to get Democrats off the bench so the governor can replace them with Republicans," said Heath Haussamen, a Las Cruces journalist who runs a popular blog called NMPolitics.net.
But Haussamen said some Las Cruces Democrats were torn between supporting Murphy and condemning his objectionable comments. "It puts a number of Democrats in a very uncomfortable situation because of the dynamics at play," he said.
Murphy's attorney, Michael Stout, said his client had done nothing wrong. "Judge Murphy has always tried to improve the judiciary — as is his right and as he should — and he's done so in appropriate and lawful ways. He has no special control or influence in the judiciary and, even in this political prosecution, there is no allegation that he does."
The controversy dates back to a lunch at the Spanish Kitchen in Las Cruces on Sept. 13, 2007, when attorney Beverly Singleman met with Murphy and another judge and mentioned her interest in an upcoming judicial vacancy. According to an investigative report, Murphy advised Singleman to make a "substantial contribution" to the local Democratic Party if she wanted to be considered for the post.
Disturbed, Singleman confided in another judge, Lisa Schultz. Later, Murphy visited Schultz's chambers and repeated his assertion that Singleman should make payments to the party to win a judicial appointment, "indicating that this is how things are done," the report said.
Schultz consulted with the court's staff attorney, who advised that she should refer the matter to the state Judicial Standards Commission, because Murphy's statements could be construed as illegally offering political influence in return for campaign contributions. But the report suggests Schultz was afraid of retaliation if she did so, because six of the commission's 11 members had been appointed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and the purported beneficiary of the donations.
Schultz voiced her concerns about Murphy to a number of other judges before taking matters into her own hands, secretly recording Murphy during a private meeting with him. In the recording from August 2010, which was introduced as evidence at a preliminary hearing, Murphy offers Schultz various inducements in return for her vote in support of a chief judge candidate — comments that became the basis for another bribery count.
Murphy, appointed to the bench by Richardson in 2006, also can be heard making vulgar remarks about gay people and Latinos and describing himself as "rude, crude and socially unacceptable."
When those comments were publicized in news reports last month, gay rights organizations expressed dismay and questioned whether gay litigants could receive a fair hearing in Murphy's court.
As for Murphy's blunt comments, Stout said, "Judge Murphy will continue to value the rights of all litigants. Nothing in his private comments or his behavior on the bench indicates any differently."
Schultz meanwhile took her concerns to Las Cruces' then-Dist. Atty. Susana Martinez, a Republican who last year ran a successful race to replace Richardson as governor. Because of conflict-of-interest issues, Martinez asked Matthew Chandler, the district attorney in Clovis and a former Republican candidate for state attorney general, to handle the prosecution.
Chandler, who brought the case to a grand jury in May, took the unusual step in October of asking Charles Daniels, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, to recuse himself from further involvement.
Chandler questioned Daniels' impartiality for the way he had selected an out-of-district judge to hear the case, citing unfounded rumors of a million-dollar political contribution Daniels had supposedly made to then-Gov. Richardson in exchange for his seat. Chandler also questioned public statements Daniels had made (including snippets of a cellphone conversation Chandler himself had overheard Daniels having during a conference).
Daniels rejected the motion in a strongly worded 101-page opinion that denied Chandler's accusations and all but accused him of deliberately eavesdropping on a private conversation with a staff member.
As Murphy awaits his trial on bribery charges, and prosecutor Chandler and Chief Justice Daniels are questioning each other's credibility, people statewide are wondering what's going on with New Mexico's legal branch.
The case is set to go to trial in early February. Haussamen, a former reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News who has covered courts, crime and politics for years, said the Murphy matter was one for the record books.
"I have never seen a criminal case that is so clouded by politics," he said, "and it's on all sides when I say that."
Haederle writes for The Times.