Recently appointed District Judge Gina R. Manfredi, a registered Democrat, has taken her party to court, arguing local voters deserve the chance to decide whether they want her or someone else serving as their judge.
Manfredi was one of three individuals recommended to the governor by a judicial nominating commission, which evaluated the candidates in May and June. Gov. Susana Martinez appointed her to the post last month.
Three days later, however, Manfredi lost to Bernalillo attorney Christopher Pérez when the Democratic Party of New Mexico state central committee met in Bernalillo to select the party’s nominee for the post in the November general election. Her term would end when the winning candidate takes office.
The New Mexico Supreme Court on July 24 rejected Manfredi’s petition to invalidate the results of the committee meeting.
On Tuesday, Attorney Joshua Carpenter of Albuquerque filed an emergency petition on Manfredi’s behalf in the state district court in Santa Fe, challenging the process.
The petition states Manfredi has suffered “irreparable harm,” having resigned her assistant city attorney position with the City of Rio Rancho to accept the appointment, and seeks relief from the court by giving her the “ability to run in an election to retain her office.”
“The process has been this way for years because it’s been unchallenged for years, and it’s occurred largely out of the public’s eye,” Manfredi told the Observer in an email Wednesday. “The vast majority of voters have no idea of the way in which their right to choose a candidate has been taken away from them, and that’s what is at issue here.”
Gov. Martinez spokesman Mike Lonergan also weighed in on the case, saying in an email Thursday it “exposes a significant flaw in the judicial selection process, in that the merit-based process becomes virtually meaningless and parties can nominate whomever they choose.”
DPNM stands by the committee’s action.
“We are confident that our process will be upheld and believe the district court will find little merit in this litigation, just as the Supreme Court recently held,” said DPNM Chairman Sam Bregman in an email Thursday.
Pérez said last month he did not submit an application to the nominating commission because he didn’t think Martinez, a Republican, would appoint a Democrat. He declined to comment last week.
The state Legislature in February created the new judgeship to serve Sandoval County in the 13th Judicial District, but the process of filling the position did not begin until after the filing date for the June primary election.
State law allows the state central committees of major state parties to select a nominee, whose name then appears on the general election ballot, when a judicial vacancy occurs after a primary election.
In the petition filed with the district court, Carpenter contends the procedure followed by the DPNM state central committee “directly conflicts with the procedure set forth in the New Mexico Constitution in regard to such vacancies.”
A 1988 amendment to the state Constitution created bipartisan judicial nominating commissions to fill judicial vacancies in district and appellate courts. Each commission takes applications from lawyers, interviews them to find the most qualified candidates and presents a shortlist to the governor.
The amendment represented a compromise. Previously, partisan elections determined who would serve as judges and governors had few restrictions on their appointments to fill judicial vacancies.
After the amendment, governors could only appoint lawyers vetted by the commissions.
In the decade following, governors appointed 81 judges, according to an article by emeritus University of New Mexico law professor Leo M. Romero. Nine filled vacancies after a primary election. Only one lost the party’s central committee nomination.
“The Democratic state central committee’s actions have circumvented the procedure enumerated in the New Mexico Constitution and have unilaterally sidestepped the work of the judicial nominating commission and the governor’s appointment,” Carpenter said in the petition, contending the committee lacked bipartisan credentials and had “no written or evident requirement to focus on maintaining a strong judiciary.
“In contrast, the judicial nominating commission is comprised of two political parties and prominent members of the legal community and provides a thorough application and selection process focusing on maintaining a strong judiciary and vetting the most qualified judge,” he said.
The DPNM decision to pick Pérez “politicizes the judicial selection process, dilutes the New Mexico Constitution, and shifts the focus of the judicial nomination from merit to political support,” Carpenter argues.
The result, he said, will be that “political judges” will wait until after the primary to announce their retirement. Then “potentially only less-qualified applicants will risk current employment to apply for a judicial vacancy near an election.”
Carpenter also makes the case that DPNM “disenfranchised the public’s right to vote in a primary for the vacant judicial position” because local voters had no ability to elect the delegates to the Democratic state central committee.
The deadline to fill vacancies for the general election is Sept. 9. State law requires county clerks to begin mailing absentee ballots to qualifying overseas voters 45 days before the Nov. 4 general election.
The petition asks the court to stop Secretary Dianna Duran, who Carpenter said “has no discretion to choose another candidate,” from placing Pérez’s name on the ballot.
Carpenter offers the court three alternatives: It could order a runoff election between Manfredi and Pérez, tell Duran to place both names on the ballot or allow Manfredi to serve until the next primary.