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First Republican Native Judge in New Mexico Up for Re-election

The first Republican Native American appointed to the Second Judicial District Court in New Mexico is running for re-election. Samuel L. Winder was appointed to Division XIX in 2011 by Governor Susana Martinez, replacing retired Judge Albert “Pat” Murdoch.

The Second Judicial District is a general criminal court, where Winder tries homicides, sexual assaults, and property and drug crimes. He inherited more than 1,300 cases, and has closed over 720 of them since his appointment.

Winder, 50, is a member of the Southern Ute tribe, a former federal prosecutor and the first member of his tribe to earn a law degree. He was raised in Colorado and New Mexico, and attended high school in Albuquerque. There, the father of one of his classmates was Juan Burciaga, who was appointed to the United States District Court for New Mexico by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

“Judge Burciaga invited some of us to his chambers and the seed of becoming a judge was planted,” says Winder, who graduated from Stanford with a civil engineering degree in 1984. After four years working on the Navajo Nation for the Indian Health Service, Winder attended the University of New Mexico Law school. His concentration in tribal law brought him to Washington, D.C. to work for the Department of Justice and eventually, for Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP, a national law firm specializing in tribal law. A yearlong position with Senator John McCain ended when he returned to Albuquerque in 1992 to be closer to his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.

In New Mexico Winder spent several years as a federal prosecutor, then in private practice specializing in Indian law, as well as working for the National Tribal Environmental Council.

“It is important to have diversity on the bench, and I’m the only Indian Republican on the bench in New Mexico. It’s important to have a bench that represents the diversity of New Mexico. But I didn’t want to be appointed as a judge just because I’m a member of a tribe, or a Republican. Don’t believe being Republican or Native was a factor,” he says. “To become appointed a judge in New Mexico, you go to a bipartisan nominating committee, which presented my name to Governor Martinez in 2011. She told me that I was appointed not because I was Native, and not because I was a Republican, but because I was the most qualified,” he says.

The judge’s short tenure has not been without controversy. Upon the recent conclusion of a first degree murder trial in which the defendant was declared guilty by the jury, Winder posted on his campaign Facebook page that “justice was served.” The defendant has not yet been sentenced, and the comment created a stir about whether the judge’s statements reflected a bias against the defendant.

The comment was removed when the potential bias was pointed out to him, says Winder. “I’ve represented defendants, so I know how to walk as a defense attorney and prosecutor both. Despite the Facebook comment, which was a statement about the judicial process, the defense attorney said I presided in impartial way,” he says.

Winder is running his first election to keep his seat against Democratic challenger Benjamin Chavez, a sitting judge in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judicial Division 13. Metropolitan Court is not related to District Court. Chavez, who declined to be interviewed, is the son of former New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Ben Chavez. He has been a Metro judge since 2004, and lost a bid for a District Court seat in 2008 to another Republican, Bob Schwartz.

According to his campaign website, Chavez was a prosecutor before becoming a judge. He was born and raised in Albuquerque, and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and the UNM School of Law. He was unopposed in the Democratic primary in June.

Campaign finance reports show that Chavez is outspending Winder by a wide margin in the general election. Latest report from October 1, 2012 show that Winder has spent $14,727.79 total, all but $343 being spent in the primary, which he ran against so far, while Chavez has tallied up $16,250.53 in general election campaign expenses.