The Council’s Kangaroo Court
On October 5, 2015, the Isleta Tribal Council removed Judge R. Lar Thomas from the Isleta Tribal Court. The Council enacted Resolution #2015-083, “Authorizing the Removal of R. Lar Thomas from his Appointed Office as a Tribal Court Judge.” Chief Judge Rodney Jones and Governor Eddie Paul Torres requested his removal.
The Isleta Constitution protects tribal judges by limiting the reasons or the grounds for the removal of a judge from office. The Constitution provides that a judge may be removed when:
1. The official has been found guilty of a misdemeanor, in any court, “involving misconduct reflecting on the dignity and integrity of the tribal government;”
2. The Tribal Council finds the official guilty of “malfeasance in office,” or “gross neglect of duty. ”
To decide whether a judge is guilty of any of those offenses, the Constitution requires the Council to take the following steps:
1. Present the judge with a written statement of the charges against him; and
2. Conduct a hearing within ten (10) days thereafter to afford the judge an opportunity to defend against the charges.
After the hearing is complete, the Council votes on the removal. The Constitution only allows removal by a two-thirds (2/3) affirmative vote of the ENTIRE Council. This means that all seven (7) council members must be present for the hearing and at least five (5) must vote in favor of removal.
For the hearing, the following council members were present: Vice-President Michael Allen Lente, Secretary Barbara Sanchez, Fernando Abeita, Ulysses Abeita, Betty Lente and Verna Teller. Absent: President Frank Lujan.
So, the ENTIRE Council failed to convene as required by the Constitution. Nonetheless, the Council moved forward.
Before the hearing started, Chief Judge Jones arrived. Soon thereafter, he was followed by Attorney David Mielke from the law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Mielke and Brownell, LLP. Mielke’s law firm has a contract with the Pueblo to perform legal work as requested by the Council or Governor.
Typically, the Council calls in Mielke whenever they lose confidence with the Pueblo’s “in house” lawyers. The “in house” lawyers are Pablo H. Padilla and Kaydee Culbertson.
Attorney Padilla was a potential witness. Yet, he failed to appear for the hearing. Culbertson drafted key documents for the removal process and she was advising on how to remove Thomas. But, she also failed to appear.
The Council was now relying on Mielke for legal advice on how to finish the job of removing Judge Thomas from the bench.
Mielke met with Chief Judge Jones privately for approximately 15-20 minutes in the executive meeting room.
The Council then entered into an executive session. This means that the council conducts their meeting secretly. They do not record their discussion or decisions while in executive session. This deprives the Tribe of an official record of their proceedings.
According to the Council, they entered an executive session to get legal advice from Mielke. The Council went into their executive meeting room along with Mielke and Governor Eddie Paul Torres. Secretary Barbara Sanchez then called in Chief Judge Jones. But, Mielke told the Chief Judge to leave. So, he quickly walked back out from the meeting room.
Tribal Judge R. Lar Thomas then arrived with his attorney Mark Jarmie.
The Council’s meeting with Mielke lasted approximately 15 to 20 minutes. During that time, the Council voted to remove Thomas from the bench. The Council voted BEFORE they conducted the hearing while they were in executive session.
The Council and their lawyer finally came out of their executive meeting room to begin “the hearing.”
Lente began by announcing that the Council was still convened in their “executive session.” He then told me (Christopher Abeita) and Charlene Seidl to leave the hearing. We were the only private tribal members in attendance.
I asked Lente why he was requiring us to leave the hearing.
Lente replied that the Council was worried that Judge Thomas was intending to bring in the outside media for the hearing. Lente said that this was an internal matter and that the Council didn’t want the outside to know what was happening. He said that later, they would let the Tribe know what happened. So, we had to leave the hearing.
After we left, Vice-President Lente informed Judge Thomas that the Council already voted to remove him from office. So, the Council did not afford Thomas a hearing to defend himself against the charges.
The Council has not yet disclosed the charges made against Judge Thomas by Chief Judge Jones and Governor Torres.
What were the charges? What did the Judge do wrong? How did he commit malfeasance? How did he commit gross neglect of duty? Why is the Council keeping the removal of Judge Thomas secret? Where is the transparency?
Governor Eddie Paul Torres, with the approval of the Council, appointed R. Lar Thomas to serve as a judge. A tribal judge is an important position within our government. Our judges make critical decisions that have an immediate and direct impact on the lives of all tribal members.
Our judges have the authority to take away our freedom, our property and our children. They have awesome powers. So, we should care very much who is serving as a judge for our Pueblo. And, we should be equally concerned as to why a judge is being removed from office.
When we stand before the tribal courts, we need judges that will have the integrity and honor to apply the law fairly and objectively to our situation. Judges must do this without passion or malice. They must render their decisions without regard to politics or popularity.
But, how can they do that when the Council can easily violate the Constitution to remove them from office?
If the Council or Governor can violate the Constitution to remove a judge, it means that our judges are exposed to political retaliation. They’re exposed to the threat of manipulation and coercion from the Governor and the Council.
The entire purpose of limiting the circumstances for the removal of a judge is to protect our judges from threats of political retaliation, manipulation or coercion. So, it shouldn’t be easy to remove a judge from office.
When our judges or justices are exposed to political threats, it causes them to make decisions based on self-preservation. In other words, our judges become more concerned about appeasing the Council and Governor in order to survive and keep their job as a judge.
As a consequence, our judges and justices begin twisting or ignoring the law to satisfy the Council or Governor. This is dangerous because it deprives you and your family of fair and equal treatment by our judges.
If you have a case involving the Council, the Governor or one of their family members, then who do you think the judges are going to favor when they are exposed to political retaliation?
How can we trust that our judges or justices will treat us fairly when the Council or Governor can simply violate the Constitution to remove them from office?
Several years ago, due to the legal advice of attorney Pablo H. Padilla, the Council illegally removed two (2) duly elected council members from office. The Council ousted Diane Peigler and ReGina Joyce Zuni from their elected offices in violation of the Constitution.
Whether we liked them or not, Peigler and Zuni were elected BY THE PEOPLE! They were not political appointees. The Governor did not give them those positions. The PEOPLE voted for them to serve, as their voice, on the Council. So, when the Council removed them from office, the Council silenced the voices of all tribal members that voted for Peigler and Zuni.
To this day, the Isleta Appellate Court has failed to act on the case filed by Diane Peigler on her illegal removal from office. Why? Why have the Justices of the Isleta Appellate Court failed to make a decision? Why do the Justices lack the courage to execute their duties? What is their problem? Is it fear of retaliation? Is it political cowardice? Is it stupidity? Incompetence? Or, did the Governor, the Council or attorney Pablo H. Padilla direct the Appellate Court not to act on Peigler’s case? Which is it?
When the Council can easily violate the Constitution to remove a judge or an elected council member from office, it’s dangerous to all of us. So, the removal of Judge Thomas is not really about Thomas. It’s about honoring our Constitution. It’s about the honor of our Pueblo.
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