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The following articles were written by former Probate Judge Merri Rudd.

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Small Claims Courts

11:53 AM
Merri Rudd

Editor's note: This column may not be quoted or reproduced in whole or part without express written permission of the author.

Q: Back in the late 1930s I was acquainted with a system called "Small Claims Court" in which disputants would meet with an officer of the court to settle claims usually limited to amounts under $500. Does such a court still exist today, and, if so, how does one contact it for updated rules? 

New Mexico does have courts that are "small claims courts." Bernalillo County has a metropolitan court, a bustling metropolis of 18 judges who handle over 125,000 cases a year.

In counties other than Bernalillo, the magistrate courts handle small claims matters. Each county has its own magistrate court. The docket fee to file a civil case in metropolitan and magistrate courts is $67.

Metropolitan court judges must be attorneys who have practiced law at least three years, but magistrate judges do not have to be attorneys. Metropolitan court judges go through the judicial merit selection process, are appointed by the governor, and must then run in a contested political race. Once a metropolitan court judge wins his/her election, he/she is subject to retention elections every four years.

Magistrates are nominated and elected at large within each magistrate district at the primary and general elections. Magistrates must run for re-election every four years to keep their judgeship.

Magistrate and metropolitan courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and can only preside over certain matters set out in New Mexico law. These courts have jurisdiction in civil actions in which the debt or sum claimed does not exceed $10,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Metropolitan and magistrate courts have jurisdiction to collect a debt that arose within their districts.

Metropolitan and magistrate courts can also handle cases such as landlord/tenant disputes, unsettled debts, small auto accidents, small personal injury claims, property damage claims, and contract disputes. In addition to limited civil case jurisdiction, these courts have powers to hear such matters as DWI cases, misdemeanor domestic violence matters, traffic violations, parking violations, and criminal misdemeanors. 

Courts of limited jurisdiction do not have jurisdiction in certain civil actions, such as divorce, guardianship and conservatorship of a minor or incapacitated person, claims over $10,000, and land title disputes. The District Courts, which have more jurisdiction and power, hear these types of cases.

Many people choose to use the civil division of the Bernalillo County metropolitan court without the aid of an attorney. These "pro se" litigants can find practical information about process and how to file a lawsuit at the court's web site www.metrocourt.state.nm.us/. On the second floor of the court is a mediation/pro se office that can provide assistance but not legal advice. Their phone number is 841-9817. The general number for the metropolitan court is 841-8151.

Each county's magistrate court should be listed in the blue government pages of the phone book. The Judicial Education Center's web site http://jec.unm.edu/resources/ will take you to multiple resources about the magistrate courts. Click on "Court Brochures" to access numerous brochures about how to file a lawsuit in a magistrate court.

© 2005, Albuquerque Journal, All Rights Reserved 

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