How do lawyers rate Onuska?
(A: They bail out of his court
by the hundreds.)
Onuska is one of six district court judges in the 11th District
(McKinley and San Juan Counties). How does he compare to the other
strong indicator is the frequency courtroom attorneys "excuse"
Onuska from hearing their cases. New Mexico is one of a handful
of states that allows a party to a lawsuit to "excuse"
a judge from hearing his case. When a case is filed with the district
clerk, a computer assigns it to one of the courts. Each party in
the suit has a limited amount of time to "excuse" the
judge. If a party excuses the judge, the case is reassigned by the
district clerk's computer to another court. A party can only exercise
this right once. So if a case gets reassigned to a court the party
likes even less, he's jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
excusal is a real vote of no confidence in a judge. Most attorneys
are loath to exercise this right for fear of angering the judge
they excuse. Sure, it may help the attorney with the case at hand,
but what happens in the future if that attorney is brought in on
a case in that judge's court, and the deadline for exercising an
excusal has passed? There are only six district judges in the 11th
District, and if you make your living in court, you don't want to
needlessly antagonize any of them.
has-by far-the highest excusal rate in the 11th District. We can
infer from that that he has-by far-the least respect of any judge
by those who know their work best: the attorneys who practice in
most recent judge to join the bench is Bill Birdsall, in 1999. San
Juan County District Clerk's Office records (which includes statistics
from McKinley County) show that from 1999 through June 30, 2002,
Onuska was "excused" by attorneys from hearing their cases
266 times. His closest competitor for the dubious distinction of
being the most excused judge is Judge Harrison, with 199 (Harrison
is not standing for retention, however.) During that time Judge
Caton had 96 excusals, Judge Birdsall had 93, Judge Rich had 83,
and Judge Foutz had 38. The average number of excusals for that
two and a half year period for the five judges excluding Onuska
was 101.8. Onuska had over two and a half times as many excusals
as the average!
asked an experienced trial attorney why he thought Onuska had such
a grossly disproportionate number of excusals. His immediate reply:
"because he is a jerk."
faxed and mailed Judge Onuska a letter on Sept. 5, (see "Questions
for Onuska") asking him to explain why lawyers excuse him
from hearing his cases in such high numbers. So far, he's refused
As damning as the excusal figures are, they are only
part of the story. Judges in New Mexico are allowed to "recuse"
themselves from a case for any reason, or no reason. If they "recuse"
themselves, the case is reassigned by the district clerk's computer
to another judge.
1999 through the end of June 2002, Onuska "recused" himself
from a whopping 323 cases! His nearest "rivals" for recusals-Judge
Harrison and Judge Birdsall-are not even close, with 246 and 203
recusals, respectively. The other judges have far fewer recusals.
Judge Rich had 172 recusals, Judge Caton had 143, and Judge Foutz
had 114. The average number of recusals for the other five judges
is 175.6. Onuska recuses himself almost twice as often as the average
of the other judges!
Onuska's recusal rate is even worse than it appears. Judge Harrison
and Judge Birdsall had active courtroom practices for many years
before taking the bench, and are the most recent judges to take
the bench. It is reasonable for a judge to recuse himself in many
of the cases in which one of the parties is a former client of his.
So it's not surprising that their recusal rates are a little higher
than the others. That's what the right of recusal is all about:
allowing judges to avoid cases where they feel it would be unfair
to one side or the other if they heard the case. But Onuska doesn't
have that excuse-he's been on the bench since 1985. Why does he
have such an enormous recusal rate?
possible reason: two lawyers told us that Onuska recuses himself
whenever he sees a case may present difficult political problems
for him. For example, if both parties to a lawsuit are prominent
people, he figures he's in a lose-lose situation. In such a case
he'll recuse himself, and let another judge handle that hot potato.
all this means is that Onuska leaves the heavy lifting to the other
judges. It also means that Onuska's already sky-high excusal rate
by attorneys would probably be even higher if he wasn't so quick
to hand off a case.
be fair, we pointed these facts out to Onuska in a letter faxed
and mailed Sept. 5, and asked for an explanation (see "Questions
for Onuska"). So far, he has no answer.
figures quoted here were prepared by the San Juan County District
Clerk's Office (tel. 334-6151), and are public information.
So far we have not received
(see "Questions for