Federal judge in Aamodt case recuses herself

Martha Vázquez

The federal district judge handling the Aamodt case, the state’s oldest water-rights litigation, has recused herself because her husband is now a member of the Santa Fe City Council.

U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez, the wife of City Councilor Joseph Maestas, took herself off the Aamodt case Monday, according to a notice filed in U.S. District Court. Vázquez was assigned the case in 2003.

The litigation was filed by the New Mexico state engineer in 1966 to determine the water rights of four pueblos and thousands of non-Pueblo residents and farmers in the Pojoaque Valley north of Santa Fe. The often contentious case led to near riots in the 1980s.

A proposed settlement was finally reached in 2006 between the pueblos, the city and county of Santa Fe, the state and the federal government. Vázquez was presiding over the case at the time the settlement was reached.

Vázquez’s husband, Maestas, was elected to the City Council in March. Federal law prohibits a judge from handling a case in which a spouse is an officer of a party to the lawsuit, according to Vázquez’s recusal.

Vázquez said in the notice that none of the 65 orders she has issued since January 2014 in the case involved the city of Santa Fe.

Some attorneys in the case are disappointed in her recusal.

“Judge Vázquez has been on the case a long time and has such an institutional knowledge,” said Marcos Martinez, the attorney representing the city in the case. “… There is an incredibly steep learning curve with this being one of the longest-running water-rights cases in the U.S.”

He thinks Vázquez, given her long history with the case, could have expedited a final resolution faster than a new judge.

John Utton, the attorney who has represented Santa Fe County in the case for years, said, “In our pleadings, the settling parties had noted we thought she could continue, but we respect her opinion that she cannot.”

U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson has been appointed to take over the Aamodt case, named for the first defendant listed by alphabetical order. He will be hearing nearly 700 objections filed in the case.

Utton said he’s “confident the federal court will ensure a smooth transition and any objections to the settlement can be heard in a timely manner.”

In authorizing the Aamodt settlement in 2010, Congress required a final decree from the federal court by September 2017 that all conditions have been met, including resolving all water claims in the Pojoaque Valley.

People with water rights in the valley who oppose the settlement raised the possible conflict of interest regarding Vázquez in May but didn’t cite the federal statute or name her relationship with Maestas.

Martinez credits the judge with researching the statutes on her own and making the decision. “I believe that Judge Vázquez could have remained an impartial judge. But her order of recusal cited a statute, and in looking at the statute, I see she didn’t have much leeway,” Martinez said. “So she did the right thing, unfortunately.”

Maestas said he had no idea his position as a city councilor would force his wife to remove herself from the case and feels badly for her. “It’s just unfortunate that this happened,” Maestas said. “I credit my wife with leading this lawsuit to a settlement. When she was assigned this case, it was languishing. She got it back on track.”

Maestas said when he began campaigning, he thought all the actions with Aamodt involving the city already had occurred and predated his run for the council. “Quite frankly, I don’t anticipate any other city action regarding Aamodt,” he said.

Vázquez has served as a federal judge since 1993. She had a private practice in Santa Fe from 1981 to 1993.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.