After a lengthy and at-times turbulent search process, the City of Nogales welcomed a new magistrate to run its municipal court in April.
Vanessa Cartwright, who previously served more than nine years as a Santa Cruz County prosecutor, made her debut as the city court judge on April 8.
“I think in my role as a prosecutor you can have an impact on people, but I think in this role you can have a greater impact on more people,” Cartwright said in an interview on Tuesday. “You have so much interaction with the public at large, and I really do believe in the process, and I believe in people being treated with fairness and dignity and respect.”
She said that she hadn’t been planning to leave her old job, but “when this opportunity presented itself, to be a judge in this community which I really care about and that I love, it just seemed like one that I couldn’t pass up.”
So far, she has implemented small changes at the court – offering snacks to visitors and keeping toys for children behind the bench – but she will oversee bigger moves next month when the court brings on a new manager and introduces a new translation system.
As for herself, Cartwright said that the new role hasn’t changed her.
On Tuesday, she smiled widely when greeting defendants and shared jokes with lawyers in between cases.
“I thought I would try and be more serious or more judicial,” she said, “but at the end of the day, it’s funny, I’m still me.”
Although she has worked in Nogales for almost her entire legal career, Cartwright’s roots lie north of Santa Cruz County.
She grew up in Tucson and studied journalism and psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, then completed her legal education at UA’s Rogers College of Law, graduating in 2007.
In 2009, she began what has become her regular commute down Interstate 19 when she accepted a job at the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office, based at the County Complex on Congress Drive.
During her time at the county, Cartwright moved from Tucson to Sahuarita, where she currently lives with her family. She joked that she was the “queen of I-19” after nearly a decade of making the commute to work in Nogales.
As a county prosecutor, “I started out doing felony victim crimes, thefts, break-ins, things of that nature,” she recalled. “Then I transitioned into the drug caseload, and then after that, for the last two-and-a-half years I was doing violent crimes, sex crimes, and all of the child (sex crime)cases.”
“Even as a prosecutor, I always prided myself on being very objective, very fair,” she said.
In a 2013 case, Cartwright asked a judge to dismiss drug-smuggling charges against city employees after her office learned of information that raised questions about the credibility of a key prosecution witness.
Not just a judge
After the city’s previous magistrate, Mayra Galindo, left in January, Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink appointed multiple temporary judges to run the court. When contract talks with one candidate broke down, the Arizona Supreme Court turned over control of the city court to Fink until Cartwright accepted the job at a salary of $108,000.
Moving into her new office at City Hall, Cartwright is settling into a job that is one part judicial, one part managerial.
“Here, because we’re a smaller jurisdiction – and this is very common in smaller jurisdictions – you’re not only the judge who presides over the cases… but you’re also in charge of a department,” she said.
In the past, some court employees had complained of a difficult work environment. Former Court Manager Nancy Carter, who resigned her position in March, told the NI at the time that she felt she had been assigned to “tasks and things that really aren’t my designated tasks as court manager,” and said that communication between the court and city staff was strained.
“I had heard that it was difficult, but that has not been my experience,” Cartwright said. “And I think a lot of that just has to do with what you bring into it.”
On July 15, Marty Torres, a longtime Spanish-language interpreter at Santa Cruz County Superior Court, will start as the new city court manager.
Also in July, the city court will begin contracting certified translators to provide in-court translation. Previously, bilingual staff members had stepped up to translate at the municipal court, but new state rules that will take effect in July require court translators to obtain a formal credential.
In her dual role as the legal and administrative face of the court system, Cartwright said she wants to set a positive tone in the courtroom.
“You’re going to come here, you don’t necessarily want to be here, right? You don’t want to pay fines, you don’t want to come in here,” she said. “But if you’re going to have to be here, (it should be) as painless as possible.”
That mindset extends beyond defendants, Cartwright added.
“When people come in for injunctions or orders of protection, they have little kids, it’s obviously a very stressful situation,” she said. “So we have stuffed animals and toys and things… we give them stuff to distract them, and to make it a more positive experience. Because again, your opinions about the (criminal justice) system can get formed at such an early age.”
Still, even with organic lollipops at the welcome window and toys behind the bench, Cartwright keeps her goals realistic.
“Nobody really comes to court for a good thing, but at least they can leave not feeling bad about it. So that’s what we’re going for.”