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Local attorneys call for metro court in Doña Ana County


When it became clear that Doña Ana County’s population would exceed 200,000, the state legislature was spurred into action. Their goal was simple: prevent Doña Ana County from establishing a metropolitan court – something Bernalillo County has had for decades.

Now, a letter from a professional organization of area lawyers and judges expressed support for renewing that fight.  

“As the second largest county in New Mexico, home to the second largest city, Las Cruces, and sitting along the Texas and Mexico Border, Doña Ana County has outgrown the limited jurisdiction of a traditional magistrate court,” reads a letter the Southern New Mexico Bar Association sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The letter continued, “We believe the greater Las Cruces area is prepared for and deserving of this expanded local judicial system. “

The move would consolidate the Doña Ana County magistrate court with multiple municipal courts.

“This expanded authority would allow the court to adjudicate criminal cases more expeditiously, provide crime victims better access to justice, and resolve complex litigation and contract disputes,” the letter said.

What is a metro court?

According to state law, metro courts handle petty misdemeanors and misdemeanor crimes with jail terms of less than a year. They also handle civil claims of less than $10,000 and are the court of record for domestic violence cases.

Metro courts do everything that magistrate and municipal courts do but combine those functions at a single courthouse. They rely on state funding and coordination for record keeping.

For example, a driver receiving a speeding ticket in Anthony would appear at the Doña Ana County metro court instead of the Anthony Municipal court. The same goes for cases in the county magistrate court, Las Cruces’ municipal court, and Mesilla’s municipal court, to name a few.

The Bernalillo County Metro Court – currently the state’s only metro courthouse – has nineteen judges. A metro court in Doña Ana County would likely require between eight to twelve judges. Otherwise, a Doña Ana Metro Court would have the same role as the court in Bernalillo County.

2010 legislature blocked metro court 

State law is the most significant hurdle to installing a metro court in southern New Mexico.

State law mandates a metro court will be established once a county reaches a population of 250,000 per the U.S. Census. Doña Ana County fell well short of that in the 2020 count, with a population of about 219,000.

Before 2010, the law stated that counties with populations of 200,000 received access to metro courts.

A bill sponsored by former House member Andy Nuñez (R-Hatch) and widely supported by the House of Representatives and Senate changed that in 2010. Initially, the bill wanted to set the population requirement to 350,000. 

A fiscal impact report published in 2010 explains why the legislature overwhelmingly opposed a metro court in Las Cruces more than a decade ago.

“A metropolitan court is more expensive than a magistrate court,” the report reads. “In this time of critical state revenue shortfalls, this bill postpones the mandatory creation of a metropolitan court in Doña Ana County.”

At the time, New Mexico’s budget contracted drastically following the Great Recession. Legislators were grappling with a $454 million shortfall that year. State expenses exceeded revenue by nearly half a billion dollars, leading the legislature to cut nine percent of the state’s budget in 2010.

The fiscal impact report argued that creating a metro court in Las Cruces would have cost the state millions when it had nothing to spare.  

The report estimates that a metro court would cost the state between $5.4 million and $7 million annually and require another $414,000 to start up. The report also said that creating a metro court in 2010 would have jeopardized funding for magistrate courts in Ruidoso, Aztec, Bernalillo, Deming, Ft. Sumner, Belen, Socorro, Tucumcari, Alamogordo, Clovis and Springer.

If the 2010 census reported that Doña Ana County had grown to a population above 200,000, the law forced the state to install a metro court. The bill preventing this passed the House of Representatives 61-7 and the Senate 33-5.

But 2010 – and all its fiscal woes – was long ago. The current legislature is working out a budget with the largest revenue in New Mexico’s history. And while Doña Ana County does not meet the 250,000-person threshold in 2024, SNMBA argued that its uniqueness should qualify it for consideration.  

“While we are a population that is not the size of Albuquerque, we are butting up against a municipality that’s larger than Albuquerque,” said SNMBA president Israel Chavez, noting that Texans who traverse Interstate 10 to buy cannabis products or participate in events like the Hatch Chile Festival or Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, inflate the population.

Still, no one has proposed a bill to amend the law to allow a metro court in Las Cruces in this year’s session. No change could come until the 2025 session at the earliest.

“For the community to have a little bit more certainty in their legal system, I think this is the next natural step,” Chavez said.

metropolitan court, Southern New Mexico Bar Association, legislature