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Probate judge resigns

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Applications sought for term’s remainder

By Arin McKenna

By a 5–0 vote, the Los Alamos County Council accepted Probate Judge Bill McKerley’s resignation on Tuesday and took steps to fill the position through the end of the year.
McKerley was appointed to the position on Feb. 16, after previous Probate Judge Christine Chandler resigned. He recently learned of changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct – instituted Dec. 31, 2015 – that prohibit part-time judges from engaging in political conduct such as fundraising and endorsing candidates.
McKerley serves as chair of the Republican Party of Los Alamos County. After consulting with County Attorney Rebecca Ehler, he chose to keep that position and instead resign as probate judge. He tendered his resignation to council Chair Rick Reiss in a letter dated May 19.
On Tuesday, McKerley apologized to council and the county’s citizens and offered to help with the transition in any way he could.
“I just want to say thank you to the council for giving me the opportunity to serve. It was an honor,” McKerley said.
McKerley also thanked the clerk’s office, which assists the probate judge.
“They are an outstanding group of people. They serve selflessly, and the new probate judge coming in will be served very well with this outstanding group,” McKerley said.
Councilor Steve Girrens asked County Attorney Rebecca Ehler whether it would be better to keep the position vacant until after the general election, then fill it with the person elected to serve the next term. His main concern was getting someone properly trained for such a short term.
Ehler responded that if the position is vacant, its duties are assumed by the district court. She noted that district court is only held in Los Alamos once a week, so it would be “somewhat difficult” for them to do that.
During public comment, Chandler urged council to fill the position immediately as a “courtesy to citizens.”
“It’s a royal pain in the neck to go to district court, and it’s burdensome,” Chandler said, adding that district courts will not offer the same service a local probate judge can.
“When there was a crisis, we were in the office helping. You’re not going to get a district judge in on a Saturday when the family’s only here because there was an unexpected death in the family.”
Chandler noted that she was appointed in the middle of a term – in between official trainings – and that several probate judges in Albuquerque offered to give her an informal training.
“There’s a sharp learning curve, but it’s very doable, with the assistance of other probate judges, and with the assistance of some guidance from local attorneys if it’s sought,” Chandler said.
Applications to fill the vacancy through the end of the year will be accepted until 5 p.m. June 21. Under State law, any qualified person over the age of 18 who is a resident of Los Alamos County may serve.
Interested applicants should submit a one to two page letter indicating why they would be interested in serving as probate judge. Letters may be mailed or hand-delivered to County Manager Harry Burgess, Los Alamos County Municipal Building, 1000 Central Avenue, Suite 350, Los Alamos, NM 87544.
Council will select a new probate judge on June 28.
Candidates who submit a letter are expected to attend that meeting to respond to questions from the Council about their qualifications.
The resignation of McKerley also raises issues concerning the upcoming election. He was the only candidate from either party running to fill the position for the next four years. His resignation comes too late for his name to be removed from the primary ballot.
Election laws allow a political party to replace its nominee on the general election ballot when a vacancy occurs after the primary election. Therefore the Republican Party can name a substitute candidate for the office of probate judge.
Anyone who wishes to run for the office may do so as a write-in.
For more information about the duties of the Probate Judge orthe responsibilities of Probate Court, visit http://www.losalamosnm.us/clerk/Pages/ProbateCourt.aspx.