Judge Kevin Sweazea – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico

Judge Kevin Sweazea, a federal magistrate judge, has been nominated for the federal bench in New Mexico.  His experience largely reverses that of other New Mexico nominee Kea Riggs.  While Riggs was a longtime U.S. magistrate judge before being appointed to the state bench, Sweazea was a longtime state court judge before being appointed as a magistrate.

Background

Kevin Ray Sweazea was born in McIntosh, South Dakota in 1963.  Sweazea attended the University of New Mexico and the Baylor University School of Law, graduating in 1988.[1] 

After graduation, Sweazea spent a year with the Albuquerque firm Pongetti Myers & Wilson and then joined Anthony J. Williams, Attorney At Law, as an Associate. After two years there, he became a solo practitioner in Los Lunas, expanding his firm in 2001, but maintaining status as a Partner.[2]  In 2001, Gov. Gary Richardson appointed Sweazea to be a district judge on the Seventh Judicial District Court in New Mexico.[3] 

From 2017, Sweazea became a U.S. Magistrate Judge in New Mexico and currently serves there.

History of the Seat

Sweazea has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.  This seat opened on July 25, 2018, when Judge Robert Brack moved to senior status.  In May 2018, Sweazea was one of four candidates recommended by New Mexico’s Democratic Senators to the White House.[4]  While Sweazea was initially interviewed in May 2018, his formal vetting did not begin until February 2019.  Sweazea was nominated in June 2019.

Legal Career

Sweazea’s pre-bench legal career is primarily as a sole practitioner.  During his practice, Sweazea primarily handled transactional matters and civil litigation.  In particular, Sweazea handled cases involving property law, including a case in which he represented a property owner who sought an easement for access through his neighbor’s property,[5] and a suit involving breach of contract regarding the construction and sale of units in a subdivision.[6]  Interestingly, when asked to identify the top ten cases he had worked on as an attorney, Sweazea only identifies four, suggesting that he cannot name other matters on which he worked that he considers significant.[7]

Jurisprudence

Sweazea has served as a District Court judge in New Mexico between 2001 and 2017 and as a U.S. Magistrate Judge since his appointment in 2017.  In his former role as a state judge, Sweazea handled both criminal and civil actions, including approximately 11000 cases that proceeded to final judgment.[8] 

Early in his judicial career, Sweazea presided over the trial of David Parker Ray, who was charged with kidnapping and raping a Colorado woman.[9]  Sweazea sentenced Ray to 223 years in prison after Ray finally entered a guilty plea.[10]  Ray would later attempt to withdraw his plea but was blocked by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.[11]

Sweazea was also involved in the case against police officer Noah Pestak, the son of magistrate judge Thomas Pestak, who married a pregnant 15 year old girl he met while on duty.[12]  Sweazea approved the marriage license after two previous judges declined to do so.[13]  Sweazea faced a court complaint filed by Sheriff Joe Baca, who also charged Noah Pestak with statutory rape.[14]  In filing the complaint, Baca argued that New Mexico law required Sweazea to report the rape to the authorities and that he failed to do so.[15]  It is unclear whether Pestak was convicted of the charges (UPDATE: the charges against the Officer were dismissed with prejudice) or whether Sweazea faced any discipline from the complaint, but the complaint did not prevent Sweazea from being appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge or as a U.S. District Court Judge.

As a U.S. Magistrate Judge, Sweazea oversees arraignments, bond hearings, and discovery disputes in federal court as well as handling federal citations and misdemeanors.  Among the more notable cases he handled as a federal magistrate judge, Sweazea held that, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, the elements of Third Degree Robbery under Oregon law do not qualify the crime as a violent offense.[16]  This ruling was reversed by U.S. District Judge James Browning who held that third degree robbery always involves the threat of violence or use of violent, and, as such, that the crime qualifies as a violence offense under the ACCA.[17]

Overall Assessment

While Sweazea was recommended by his Democratic home state senators, he may still face some obstacles in the confirmation process.  The most prominent will likely be his role in the Pestak case, where senators may probe why Sweazea granted judicial permission for the marriage and why he did not report suspicions of statutory rape.  However, as it is unclear whether Sweazea was found to have violated any judicial canons in New Mexico, and as the incident has not affected his future career, it may not prove dispositive for his confirmation.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Kevin Sweazea: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See SANTA FE, Governor Appoints Sweazea to Seventh District, Associated Press State & Local Wire, Feb. 23, 2001.

[4] See Press Release, Office of Sen. Tom Udall, Udall, Heinrich, Pearce Recommend Candidates to Fill Two Vacancies on U.S. District Court (May 2, 2018).

[5] Burleson v. Cordova, No. N/A (N.M. 7th Jud. Dist. 2000).

[6] Quemado Lake Estates v. El Caso Ranch, Inc., No. N/A (N.M. 7th Jud. Dist. 2004).

[7] See Sweazea, supra n. 1 at 42-44.

[8] See id. at 14.

[9] Jeff Simons, Former Husband Testifies in Sex-Torture Trial, A.P. State & Local Wire, Apr. 11, 2001.

[10] TRUTH & CONSEQUENCES, NM, Ray Gets 223-Plus Years, A.P. State & Local Wire, Sept. 20, 2001.

[11] Deborah Baker, Court Refuses to Let Ray Withdraw Guilty Plea, A.P. State & Local Wire, Mar. 20, 2002.

[12] TRUTH & CONSEQUENCES, NM, NM Officer, 15-Year-Old’s Wedding Raises Eyebrows, A.P. State & Local Wire, June 25, 2012.

[13] See Ben Johnson, Former Cop Paid For Abortion to Hush Up 15-Year-Old Girl, Police Say, LifeSite, Jul. 30, 2012, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/fmr.-cop-paid-for-abortion-to-hush-up-15-year-old-girl-police-say.  

[14] LAS CRUCES, NM, Ex-NM Officer Who Married 15-Year-Old Charged, A.P. State & Local Wire, July 28, 2012.

[15] See Johnson, supra n. 13 (quoting Sheriff Joe Baca).

[16] United States v. Hammond, 2017 WL 3098261 (D.N.M. June 23, 2017).

[17] See United States v. Hammond, 286 F. Supp. 3d 1270, 1290-91 (D.N.M. 2017).

Judge Kea Riggs – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico

Judge Kea Riggs, a New Mexico state judge has been nominated for the federal bench with the support of her home state Democratic senators.  

Background

Riggs was born Kea Lynn Whetzal in Midwest City, Oklahoma in 1965.  Riggs attended the University of Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma Law School, graduating in 1990.[1]

After graduation, Riggs spent a year with the Las Cruces firm Cutter & Riggs, P.C. and then became an Assistant District Attorney in New Mexico’s Third Judicial District. She then joined joined the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department as a Children’s Court Attorney for a year before joining the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office.[2]  In 1999, she joined Sanders, Bruin, Coll & Worley P.A. as an Associate.[3]  In 2006, Riggs left the firm to become a self-employed mediator.[4] 

From 2001 to 2014, Riggs served as a part-time U.S. Magistrate Judge in New Mexico.  She became a Judge on the Fifth Judicial District Court in New Mexico in 2014 and currently serves there.

History of the Seat

Riggs has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.  This seat opened on February 7, 2018, when Judge Christina Armjio moved to senior status.  In April 2018, Riggs was one of four candidates recommended by New Mexico’s Democratic Senators to the White House.[5]  While Riggs was initially interviewed in May 2018, her formal vetting did not begin until February 2019.[6]  Riggs was nominated on May 3, 2019.

Legal Career

Riggs has held a number of different positions as an attorney, including serving as a mediator, state prosecutor, and in private practice.  However, overall, Riggs primarily practiced criminal law throughout her career, although she did handle some domestic and probate matters as well.[7]  By Riggs’ estimation, she has tried approximately 500 cases to trial and judgment.[8]  Interestingly, Riggs reports that virtually all of her litigation has been in state courts, not federal.[9]

Jurisprudence

Riggs has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge on a part-time basis between 2001 and 2014 and as a District Court judge in New Mexico since her appointment in 2014.  In the former capacity, Riggs oversaw arraignments, bond hearings, and discovery disputes in federal court.  She also handled federal citations and misdemeanors.  For example, she fined a New Mexico man for hunting oryx in a federal wildlife refuge.[10]  In her latter role as a state judge, Riggs has handled both criminal and civil actions, including approximately 5000 bench trials.[11] 

Overall Assessment

As a Republican appointee with strong support from her Democratic home state senators, Riggs can be considered a consensus nominee.  While some may question Riggs’ experience (given her lack of practice in federal court), her long tenure on the bench and her lack of a controversial paper trail should ensure a smooth confirmation.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Kea W. Riggs: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 33-34.

[6] Id. at 34.

[7] See id. at 26-27.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 27.

[10] AP, NM Man Gets Probation for Wildlife Area Trespass, Associated Press State & Local Wire, Mar. 3, 2011.

[11] Riggs, supra n. 1 at 11.