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Judges sue over veto of raises

Albuquerque attorney Ray Vargas, center, is representing a group of judges in their suit against Gov. Susana Martinez. With him are District Judges Louis McDonald, left, and Alan Malott.(Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Albuquerque attorney Ray Vargas, center, is representing a group of judges in their suit against Gov. Susana Martinez. With him are District Judges Louis McDonald, left, and Alan Malott.(Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
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A group of New Mexico judges is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of an 8 percent pay raise, saying it was an overstep of executive power that effectively deleted judges’ entire salaries from the state budget.

The Governor’s Office believes the result of the veto would only be to keep judges’ salaries at their current levels and defended the veto as a proper use of the governor’s authority over the state budget.

The Governor’s Office challenged the legitimacy of the legal action, saying judges’ appealing to the Supreme Court creates “an extraordinary conflict of interest.”

The Supreme Court justices also would receive raises if they overrule the veto, and Supreme Court Justice Petra Maes, who was chief justice at the time, was among the lobbyists for the raises, Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said.

“The governor overstepped her bounds,” said attorney Ray Vargas, who is representing the judges in the lawsuit. “By Constitution and by statute, the Legislature sets judges’ pay.”

The group bringing suit against the governor includes District Judges Alan Malott of Albuquerque, J.C. Robinson of Silver City, Jeff Foster McElroy of Taos, and Louis McDonald of Bernalillo; Magistrate Judges Duane Castleberry of Clovis, David Joel Garnett of Tucumcari, Karen Mitchell of Roy and Warren Walton of Raton. Also included are state Sens. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, and George Muñoz, D-Gallup; and associations representing all New Mexico district, metropolitan and magistrate judges.

Three of the judges filing the suit – Castleberry, Mitchell and Walton – are Republicans, and the other five are Democrats, as are four of the five Supreme Court justices. The fifth is an independent, or “decline to state.” Gov. Martinez is a Republican.

Vargas defended the Supreme Court’s ability to impartially hear the case. “In our system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court gets to pass (judgment) on the constitutionality of a governor’s veto,” he said.

The Legislature this year approved a combined pay raise totaling 8 percent for judges – made up of a 5 percent raise dedicated to judges and a 3 percent raise for all state workers, including judges.

The raises were fast-tracked after the national National Center for State Courts in 2013 ranked New Mexico the lowest-paying jurisdiction for trial court judges in the country, at $112,746 per year.

Martinez has said she vetoed the judicial pay raises because she thought 8 percent was too much when other state workers would receive 3 percent raises. Martinez said she vetoed the judicial raise package because she couldn’t separate the 5 percent and 3 percent components.

“Judges want to give themselves a raise that would have amounted to nearly three times the raise that teachers received,” the governor’s spokesman said Monday in a statement. “… The governor has been clear – had they requested a more modest increase in pay, along the same lines of the 3 percent raise provided to teachers and other state workers, it would have been approved. Eight percent in one year is dramatic and excessive.”

But the judges said in their petition to the Supreme Court that Martinez’s line-item veto had the effect of scratching out salaries altogether for all district, metro and magistrate judges statewide, not just the Legislature’s proposed raises.

“It doesn’t provide any salary for the judges. It doesn’t even provide for reverting back to their old salary. And the law requires the Legislature to set judges’ salary annually,” Vargas said.

District court and magistrate court judges are up for retention this year.

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