After a week of confusion, the state Public Defender’s Office issued a statement Monday backing up Sixth Judicial District Attorney Francesca Estevez’s assertion that she had nothing to do with a District Court motion granting her a free lawyer. The statement admitted to “misunderstandings” and “mistakes” within the office.
“I’m glad that this much ado about nothing has been vetted and fleshed out to reveal that I had nothing to do with this process,” Estevez told the Daily Press on Tuesday — “that I never requested indigent.”
Estevez is involved in a Court of Appeals case filed by the state of New Mexico, and was long represented by recently elected District Court Judge Jim Foy. In the wake of Foy’s election last November, he was required to relinquish his private practice — leaving Estevez, among others, without an attorney on record. In April, Albuquerque attorney Keren Fenderson filed a motion on Estevez’s behalf in Grant County District Court “for appointment of appellate counsel and free process.”
Third Judicial District Court Judge Douglas Driggers, the Las Cruces judge who handled Estevez’s case, signed an order in May that the New Mexico Public Defender’s Office be “appointed counsel on appeal in this case.”
Estevez told the Daily Press Friday that she never requested the appointment or free process.
“I don’t know the attorney,” she said. “I don’t know why that was filed, or who the person is. I had nothing to do with that motion. I never even got a copy of it. I never talked to him or her.”
Bennett Baur, the state’s chief public defender, confirmed in an email to the Daily Press on Monday that Estevez had never reached out to their office or declared indigency.
“What happened was a series of complicated misunderstandings and a few mistakes that combined with our best intentions to make sure that a New Mexican citizen had access to an attorney during an unusual and serious legal process,” he wrote.
Baur said the Attorney General’s Office got in touch with his office about Estevez’s case in March.
They asked “if we had plans to represent a person against whom they were pursuing an appeal,” Baur said. “The AG’s Office was alerting us that the person would not have an attorney on record.”
The Public Defender’s Office then began searching for a contract attorney to represent “the person” until they could find another private attorney or “go through the process to get officially approved for a public defender.”
“At this stage, there were several misunderstandings among several people in different parts of our department, all of them very busy and well-meaning,” he said. “At some point in the process, someone, whether staff in our department that hires contract attorneys, our Appellate Division, or the contract attorney we retained, should have double-checked on the status of the case and reached out to the client.”
However, that’s not how it turned out. Baur said that the office has “taken internal steps” to fix the problems.
“A contract attorney was indeed retained,” he said. “She filed basic paperwork in court to have the [Law Offices of the Public Defender] appointed to the appeals case, and a judge approved it. Before any substantial work would have been done, though, there would have been contact with the client, and both counsel and Ms. Estevez would have realized that she did not qualify for and did not want our services.”
Fenderson never responded to Daily Press calls and emails. However, she sent a statement to Albuquerque TV station KRQE.
“I was commissioned by the Law Offices of the Public Defender for the sole purpose of appointing their office to represent Ms. Estevez,” she said. “My understanding of the situation was that Ms. Estevez was previously represented by a Mr. [Jim] Foy who could or would no longer represent Ms. Estevez. In the meantime, there was an appeal filed and there was going to be a gap in representation.
“The Law Offices of the Public Defender strives to make sure everyone is represented, and thus wanted to make sure there was no gap in representation should Ms. Estevez request and qualify for public representation,” Fenderson continued. “A gap in representation could have had consequential repercussions should she been in need of representation. Because I only represented Ms. Estevez for that limited purpose, I have no idea whether she in fact applied and/or qualified for public representation.”
New Mexico In Depth’s Jeff Proctor first reported about Driggers’ appointment July 2. New Mexico In Depth makes its stories available to other outlets for republication, and the Daily Press reposted the story on its website July 3 and reprinted the story in the July 5 print edition. The story quoted Baur as saying he didn’t know about the appointment until a reporter told him in mid-June.
“It took a while to figure it out,” Baur told the Daily Press on Tuesday. “We heard about it in June. We reached out to Keren and didn’t hear from her right away. Because we knew there was no work going on, it wasn’t a top priority. We made sure nothing else was going to happen. We sort of determined to trace through what had happened.
“Nobody had been working on this case for the last couple of months,” he continued. “It had been briefed by Jim Foy, and we were waiting for something from the Court of Appeals of what the next step was going to be. We had to trace what happened, [and] we were able to do that.”
Baur could not recall a similar incident within his office.
“This is particularly unusual, I think, because it is a Sixth Circuit case, with a Third Circuit judge, and an attorney who withdrew in the appellate court,” he said. Fenderson “was trying to make sure a client was represented. People were trying to see what was going on and what the status was. I think it is sort of unique — not totally unique, but definitely unusual, and that made it harder to figure it out where it was.”
The Daily Press reached out to Proctor on his plans for a follow-up to his July 2 story — which was picked up by news websites and publications across New Mexico.
“I am not sure how we are going to handle it as an organization,” he said Tuesday. “We have to follow up in some way. [Baur] is saying something different than what he told me last week.”
Estevez said she is still considering representing herself in the appeals case going forward.
“At this point, it depends on several factors,” she said. “But at this point I’m considering pro se.”
The ongoing case stems from a June 2016 incident in which another driver videoed Estevez driving erratically in a state-owned vehicle between Cliff and Silver City. A year later, Estevez was charged with reckless driving and disorderly conduct, among other charges, by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
Although it was filed in Grant County — in the Sixth Judicial District — the case was heard by Third Judicial District Court Judge Driggers in Las Cruces because of Estevez’s position as district attorney in the Sixth Judicial District. Under a 2018 plea deal in the case, Estevez pleaded guilty to reckless driving and disorderly conduct.
The Attorney General’s Office then appealed a decision made by Driggers to dismiss three counts of violating “ethical principles of public service.” That appeal remains to be decided by a state court of appeals.
C.P. Thompson may be reached at cp@scdaily press.com.