On a clear day, Judge Robert C. Brack can see Mexico from his office -- the federal courthouse in downtown Las Cruces.
He has sentenced more defendants than any other federal judge in the United States -- more than 7,000 defendants over about six years according to a new study from Syracuse University.
That doesn’t necessarily make him the busiest judge, just the one who sentences the most defendants. He says he expected the workload going in.
“The perception shouldn’t be such that I’m out here drowning all by myself. I was asked when I came on whether I wanted to go to Las Cruces or Albuquerque and the fact that anyone even asked me at the time bothers me now because the work was here,” said Brack.
Judge Brack says one of the reasons he decides so many cases at the federal courthouse is because of the high number of immigration cases that come before him.
More of those immigration cases are now being tried as felonies.
Judge Brack has served in Las Cruces since he was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003 and has witnessed changes over the years.
“Back then, the policy was Mexican citizens would be allowed 15 voluntary returns before they were actually sentenced. Before they were actually charged with a crime and that policy has changed over time and now they don’t get any returns – they are charged with a crime almost immediately.”
Judge Brack sees the results of his decisions every day.
“There was in court today a young man, he’s 30 years old and he’s been in the country since he was nine and he has a wife and two children - all United States citizens - and I was sending him back to Mexico. And I put back in quotations because that’s not his home and hasn’t been his home for years. And luckily he has some family back in Mexico still that will help him start over. But he’s starting over as a husband and father without his wife and children and that’s unbelievably tough.”
A big reason for high number of cases Judge Brack sentences is that he’s the only permanent federal judge in Las Cruces – for now.
There’s an empty office at the courthouse waiting for Ken Gonzales to join Judge Brack. President Obama has nominated Gonzales to replace retiring Judge Bruce Black of Santa Fe.
Another reason is that immigration cases take less time to sentence. Judge Brack compares those cases with a recent death penalty case.
“We spent about 16 weeks in trial last summer doing that and so when I sentenced that defendant, that was one defendant. And I sentenced 14 defendants this morning, so those statistics have to be considered in light of the type of cases that are being decided.”
So with a new judge on the way, Judge Brack is hopeful in spite of a complex immigration process and a high number of cases to prosecute.
“The real question is how do we deal with those that are already here and I’m encouraged for the first time…maybe something will happen.”