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How retired colonel got appointed to the bench - no law degree required

Apr. 21, 2014 - 12:08PM   |  
Valencia County Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez, in his courtroom in Belen, NM. Chavez was appointed to the Division II bench in January 2013 by Gov. Susana Martinez. Chavez retired from the Army as a Colonel after a 27 year career.
Valencia County Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez, in his courtroom in Belen, NM. Chavez was appointed to the Division II bench in January 2013 by Gov. Susana Martinez. Chavez retired from the Army as a Colonel after a 27 year career. (Mark Holm/ / Military Times Edge)
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The first thing John R. Chavez did when he started his new job: He went to jail.

“If I am going to deny someone their freedom, I want to know where I am sending them,” said Chavez, former chief of staff of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command.

Chavez retired in November as a colonel and two months later went to work as a judge on the magistrate court in Valencia County, N.M.

While he may see up to 200 cases a week, typically for minor infractions, Chavez isn’t all about incarceration. “What we are trying to do is to rehabilitate people,” he said. “We want people to move forward. How can I help people get from where they are today to become a productive member of society?”

Commitment to learning

Chavez certainly has been productive over the years. Even as he rose through the military ranks, he found time to pick up two master’s degrees: a Master of Arts in Human Resource Development from Webster University at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a Master of Strategic Studies from the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

On one hand, the academic push was designed as a career move. The HR degree in particular “tied very much to what we do in the Army. We develop people,” said Chavez, 47. “So this seemed like a way to get some civilian business acumen along with some insight into how I could do my job better.”

At the same time, the commitment to learning is part of a long family tradition. “My grandfather taught me that you can take away someone’s money, you can take away his freedom, but you can never take away his education.”

One thing Chavez didn’t have was a law degree. Turns out he didn’t need one to launch his next career. When he heard of the judge’s spot opening up in his hometown — and he had wanted to stay close to home — he did some digging and found out you don’t have to be an attorney to rule from the bench.

“The job is not to be a lawyer. The job is to follow processes and procedures and make sure you are applying good judgment,” he said.

Sounds a lot like life in the military, and in fact, Chavez’s experience in uniform helped him land the position. He had conducted preliminary exams in courts-martial cases while in the military and adjudicated financial liabilities in a variety of small incidents. “I saw those similarities, and I felt I could do this,” he said.

Connections helped. “I didn’t know the governor or have political connections, but I had a couple of great recommendations from two former commanding generals, and I was able to get an interview,” he said.

Parade of misery

Now that he’s on the bench, it’s a constant parade of low-grade misery. He sees domestic cases, petty misdemeanors and a lot of traffic infractions. It’s easy to imagine how this could wear a person down, but Chavez finds ways to remain positive.

“I recognize some of this from the military, when I saw the legal clerks dealing with this every day,” he said. “Some of them were people who have been there 15 years, and they do get a little cynical. But this is just a segment of society — this is not representative.”

It helps, too, to have a little faith. “You have to guard yourself. You have to have some way of making sure your spirit stays uplifted, so I go to church every day. Certainly I can’t proselytize from the bench, but I can go to church and hear uplifting news and let that help me to move through the day.”

With experience and faith, Chavez needed just one more thing to launch his great new career: Know-how. Here the state stepped up, giving him more than 50 hours of instruction and pairing him with two experienced judges who would act as mentors.

As for the actual judging, Chavez said it often is more a matter of holding hands than banging gavels.

“I don’t believe I am judging people. I am judging actions. So I look at what the person did. I look at the offense, and there is certainly punishment, but really what we are trying to do is to rehabilitate people,” he said. “We want people to move forward.”

In that regard, his degree in human resources has helped to shape his outlook. When you see the world from an HR point of view, “you learn to see people for their worth,” Chavez said. In other words, believe in their potential, and the course to true justice becomes clear.

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