Two legislators have complained to the governor that longtime prosecutor and former judge Susan Riedel is not qualified to be a member of the newly appointed New Mexico Public Defender Commission.
The two are reportedly considering legal action.
Under a recent amendment to the state Constitution, it is the commission that is designated to select the chief public defender.
Reps. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Moe Maestas, the House majority whip, say Riedel does not meet the statutory definition for commission members, who should have “significant experience in the legal defense of criminal or juvenile justice cases” or a demonstrated commitment to “quality indigent defense representation or to working with advocating for the population served by the department.”
Enrique Knell, the governor’s spokesman, said Riedel is “absolutely qualified to help build a strong Public Defender Department.” As both a prosecutor and a judge, he said, she advocated for a criminal justice system in which all components function smoothly, “including a spirited defense” and including working with the local defender office to get needed resources.
Knell called the criticism “shortsighted.”
The Public Defender Commission was established to give defenders independence from the executive branch. It took voter approval of a constitutional amendment in 2012 to make that happen. Legislators followed up with a law setting up the framework for its operations.
The newly appointed commission is set up much like the nominating commissions used to screen and interview candidates for judicial appointments.
The chief justice of the state Supreme Court gets three appointments, as does the dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law. The governor, House majority leader, House speaker, Senate floor majority leader and Senate pro tem each appoint one member. Riedel was the governor’s appointee.
The 10 members in addition to Riedel include Albuquerque attorneys Ahmad Assed, Mark Horton and Naomi Salazar, former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, Las Cruces attorneys Michael Stout and Jess Lilley, retired public defender Hugh Dangler, former UNM law school Dean Leo Romero, retired 2nd Judicial District Judge Richard Knowles of Albuquerque, Portales attorney L’Ette Lawrence.
Chasey and Maestas point out in their letter to Gov. Susana Martinez that Riedel spent 14 years as Martinez’s chief deputy at the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces. Riedel was appointed to a court vacancy in February 2011, but lost to Marci Beyer, a Democrat and the wife of attorney Michael Stout.
“Unless Ms. Riedel practiced criminal defense before being hired at the Doña Ana County DA’s office, I think we can all agree that she does not qualify under the statute,” the letter says.
Despite the governor’s apparent confidence in Riedel, she’s just not qualified for the position, they say.
“We write to express our deep disappointment and frustration for your lack of appropriate consideration to such an important commission,” the letter says, asking for reconsideration and appointment of someone who meets the statutory requirements.
The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association released a statement Wednesday comparing Riedel’s to “having the fox guard the henhouse.
“It would have been hard for the governor to find someone less appropriate for this particular position,” the statement said.
The commission has not yet met, but it must do so by Sept. 1. The chief public defender must be appointed by Oct. 15.