Norbert Garney

He is known as the “bowtie” judge.

And true to his reputation, U.S. Magistrate Judge Norbert Garney is wearing a green bowtie and peach shirt on this recent Monday.

“It’s my signature,” he says.

He adds, “A bowtie looks snazzy with a black robe.”

Judge Garney is one of just over 500 magistrate judges nationwide whose job it is to assist life-tenured U.S. federal district judges.

Now serving a second term, Garney was appointed to his first eight-year term in 2000.

It was a new position and Garney built the court from scratch, starting out with a room in the old El Paso federal courthouse, a pad of paper, some folding chairs and a couple tables.

“From there we basically designed a courtroom and set the policies of how we were going to run the court,” he says.

With his bowtie, Garney looks more like a kid-friendly pediatrician than a tough judge. But that doesn’t mean Garney doesn’t get tough, especially with belligerent defendants.

“I’ve got a little sign on my bench that nobody can see. It says that even the kindest bear has to extend a paw from time to time,” he says.

Garney’s played chess since he was a child and says he lives for Wednesday night when he plays with a group of friends.

“I’m more of a social player. I don’t really care for competitions. I enjoy the company of the friends I play with,” Garney says.

Garney, 61, grew up in Houston where his father worked for an oil company.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from University of St. Thomas, a degree in nursing from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and earned his law degree from Texas Tech University School of Law.

Before going into law, Garney worked as an intensive care pediatric nurse in Denver.

He clerked for Judge Charles Schulte here in El Paso after graduating from law school in 1982.

“He was a wonderful mentor to me,” Garney says of Schulte.

Garney also worked in the district attorney’s office here in El Paso and in private practice. Most recently, he worked in Las Cruces, N.M., as a prosecutor under Susana Martinez. She was the district attorney for the Third Judicial District before being elected governor of New Mexico.

Garney was appointed U.S. magistrate judge in the El Paso division of the Western District of Texas on Sept. 7, 2000, and took office four days later.

He sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about the court’s massive criminal caseload, handling belligerent defendants, and what cases take the greatest emotional toll.

Q: What does a federal magistrate judge do?

By law we assist the district judges in their duties, and we do that by doing most of the preliminary hearings both on the civil side and the criminal side.

We basically help prepare the case to the extent that we can under the law, so that it can be finally resolved by the district judges.

What you see me doing on the bench is about 5 percent of the job. It is like an iceberg, which is probably a bad analogy given its summer.

When I walk up to the bench, I am prepared. I have to know the law that applies to the case, I have to be prepared for arguments in front of me from the litigants and know the legal background.

It doesn’t all come together by chance; everything is choreographed. By the time I hit that bench, I know what is going to go on. Think of it like a wedding.

Q: How much decision-making authority are magistrate judges given in the Western District of Texas?

The rules are somewhat the same nationwide, but the distribution of the work differs. For example, magistrate judges in Florida do an enormous amount of Social Security resolution because of all the retirees. Here we don’t do much of that.

In the interior of the United States, the magistrates do more of a civil docket than we do, but here on the border, we have probably the highest – if not, we have the second highest – criminal docket in the United States.

Q: How heavy is the criminal docket?

Whereas some of my contemporaries around the country will schedule one, two or five criminal hearings a week, I can schedule as many as 40 a day, which is not unusual. Whereas in some areas magistrate judges will do about 80-percent civil cases and 20-percent criminal, we do about 10-percent civil and 90-percent criminal here.

The magistrate judges rotate weeks. The duty magistrate is on duty for one full week and will handle every single federal arrest that comes in that week – we can average 100 or 150 a week.

Then we have two weeks after that to process everybody through. Our colleagues in the central United States – Nebraska, Kansas – will see maybe 100 people a year.

Q: How do judges here handle the massive criminal caseload?

We handle it very efficiently. (Laughs) In all fairness the hearings are sometimes waived, so sometimes we will have very heavy days where we go one hearing after another. I’ve scheduled as many as 10 or 15 an hour, and sometimes I only have one or two. We are all prepared to move forward with each one.

Q: Why so many criminal cases?

Because of the border – the vast influx of immigrants across the border and the vast influx of drugs across the border.

Q: What are the hardest cases to handle emotionally?

That’s easy. I get a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds in front of me, and they bring drugs across the border because they were offered a hundred bucks or 500 bucks.

I am the guy who tells them that, in all likelihood, they will go to prison. We don’t really have probation as such on the federal side in the sense that it’s given out extremely rarely, even for first-time offenders. First-time offenders almost always will go to prison.

Q: Why?

The federal system is much more punitive than the state system is, quite frankly. The guidelines are designed to be punitive not rehabilitative. These 18-year-olds who come before me don’t believe me, especially if they have experience with the state system, until they plead guilty in front of me and then they are sentenced to prison.

I’d say 90 to 95 percent of people before me will spend some time in jail or prison. And the parents, of course, are just devastated.

Q: Sounds like a tough job.

To me, it is just the best job in the world. It’s quite an opportunity and an honor to be able to serve in a position like this. It’s got to be the same feeling that a professional ball player has when he gets to go to Wrigley Field and play ball every day.

I get the same big grin on my face every single morning. I enjoy it that much – It’s fantastic.

Q: I’m guessing you’ve had your fair share of belligerent defendants. How do you handle those situations?

You’ve got to be very careful. Because we have a heavy caseload, we have a lot of people present in the courtroom at any one time – it is not unusual to have 50 or 60 people in the courtroom, if you include everyone.

You really have to set the tone for the hearing very quickly when you have 30 or 40 defendants standing in front of you. If somebody is a little smart to me, I have to set them in their place very quickly.

For example, I might ask somebody where they live and they will say they don’t need to tell me – all I’m trying to do is determine whether to let them out on bond.

Well, I have the authority to detain them on what’s called the court’s motion for no reason other than I can do it. So I’ll say, “OK, I’ll see you in three days. We’ll set a bond hearing for you,” and they are taken away.

You’d be surprised at how much more politely I am treated by the other 40 people in the courtroom.

You don’t have to hammer people too hard to get the message across, but sometimes you just have to let them know. I’ve got a little sign on my bench that nobody can see. It says that even the kindest bear has to extend a paw from time to time. A good friend of mine told me that when I got the bench. I typed it up, and I read it every day.

Q: What are some of the more interesting cases you’ve had?

Gosh, I have a ton of them. I had a fellow once wearing platform shoes. The heels had cocaine in them, and he tried to walk across the border in the pedestrian aisle. I suppose that could be a good way to hide cocaine except the platforms were made of glass – you could actually see the bundles. It’s true. What can I say?

Q: But then there are also the more serious cases – Barrio Azteca gang members and corrupt public officials. Even the man accused of hacking the El Paso Independent School District came before you at one point.

With high profile cases like these, there is a security issue, No. 1. No. 2, there is also the pressure to do it right, particularly on the public corruption cases, which I really can’t discuss in detail.

There is so much scrutiny on these cases even nationwide, so we are all very conscience of that, and we really try to do the right thing.

Q: When a trial is covered heavily by the media, does it make your job harder?

No. In fact, I look at it just the opposite. The media keeps us on our toes. We should be scrutinized. I want to be scrutinized quite frankly.

My job is to follow the law; it is not a popularity contest. I don’t have to run for election.

Q: Do you ever second-guess yourself or maybe regret a decision?

You know, not really. I think about things after I’ve made certain decisions just to kind of review and make sure I did the right thing.

I might have tweaked it a little better at times, but generally speaking I can live with what I’ve done.

Q: With all the drug activity here and the public corruption scandals, what keeps the justice system here honest?

To me, that is the beauty of the federal system. First of all, district judges are appointed for life, so they don’t have to worry about being unpopular, they don’t have to worry about getting votes, and they don’t have to worry about getting donors. So they are insulated from that.

Plus the vetting process is so intense. I mean, they are beyond reproach. I know of only one or two federal judges that have ever been impeached. That is an incredible statistic. Plus the ramifications are just so great. Why would anyone take a chance of giving up a job like this?

Q: How much does a magistrate judge make?

We make 92 percent of a district judge’s salary by statute, or almost $160,000 a year. So it’s quite a comfortable living, that’s for sure.

Q: This being a new position, what did you have to start with in 2000?

We had one empty room, we may have had a paper clip and a pen, a pad of paper, a couple folding tables and some folding chairs. From there we basically designed a courtroom and set the policies of how we were going to run the court.

We hired staff and cobbled together pieces of furniture from old courts in other chambers, and we were up and running in a week. It was quite a learning experience, but we got through it. There was no protocol to follow, we just made it up as we went along, but I think we’ve got quite a good court right now.

Q: I imagine the transition from attorney to judge was difficult.

It’s a fascinating transition, to go from being an advocate, whether you are on the defense side or the prosecution side, to being an arbiter or referee.

You get to kind of step back and broaden your horizons a little bit and just take in what I call a worldview before you make a decision.

Q: Take in a worldview?

What I mean by that is you can’t be tied down by one position in order to win – you have to look at everything. I look at all the positions now and then try to match up the facts with the law the best I can, and try to be as fair as I can and be as consistent as I can.

Q: Do you handle plea agreements and search warrants?

By law, judges can’t be involved in the plea agreement process – that’s something between the parties themselves. Once they come to an agreement, it’s either accepted or rejected by the judge.

I sign search warrants, what are called trap and traces, and arrest warrants.

Q: Are magistrate judges involved in sentencing?

Magistrate judges, by the Constitution, cannot sentence a felony offender. We are limited to sentencing up to one year – that’s the maximum I can impose on anybody.

Q: What philosophy guides your decision-making?

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I have the same philosophy that I had as a defense attorney that I had as a prosecutor and that I have as a judge.

And that is not everybody who runs afoul of the law deserves to have the full weight of the government come down on their head. In other words, you just don’t always go for the throat and you just don’t have to put them away forever – everybody has a story. There are some out there that need to be put away forever, but not everybody.

Q: What’s the story behind the collection of blimp photographs you have on your shelf?

My father used to fly blimps in World War II. He was a chief mechanic and they used to patrol the Caribbean for German U-boats, believe it or not.

Q: When your term is up, what do you plan to do?

I want to retire and fish.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.