SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna announced Friday that he’s retiring this summer, which will give Republican Gov. Susana Martinez her first chance to make an appointment to the state’s highest court.
However, the timing of Serna’s departure likely ensures the governor’s appointee will have a brief tenure on the five-member court.
The court said Serna will retire effective at midnight Aug. 31. He’s served on the court for 16 years, having won election to it in November 1996.
The governor’s appointee will serve at least until later this year, but the position ultimately will be filled by voters in the November general election. There’s no guarantee that Martinez’s court selection will earn a place on the ballot.
Because Democrats hold an edge in voter registration in New Mexico, Republicans have faced difficulty in statewide judicial elections. No Republican has won election to the Supreme Court since 1980.
In New Mexico, governors fill judicial vacancies based on candidates recommended by a bipartisan nominating commission made up of judges, lawyers and members of the public who are not lawyers. Lawyers can apply to be considered for the Supreme Court position, but it’s uncertain when the nominating process will start. It’s possible that the commission could accept applications and meet to screen candidates before Serna’s last day on the court at the end of August.
After a governor makes an appointment, the judge is required to run in a partisan election in the next general election. The winner then faces periodic nonpartisan retention elections, with voters deciding whether to keep the judge in office.
However, because this Supreme Court vacancy occurred too late to have nominations decided in the June primary election, state central committees of “qualified political parties” will select nominees to run for the judgeship in the general election.
Democrats and Republicans can make nomination as well as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Independent American Party and Americans Elect, according to Bobbi Shearer, the state elections director. The parties have until Sept. 11 to make their nominees for the ballot.
The winner of the general election will serve the remainder of Serna’s term, which runs through 2016.
Serna, 72, is familiar with the complicated election-year process of filling court vacancies because he went through it in winning his seat on the Supreme Court. Serna was selected as the Democratic Party nominee for the court in 1996, and he defeated Republican Harris Hartz and a Green Party candidate in the general election.
Then Republican Gov. Gary Johnson had appointed a Democrat to fill a court vacancy in 1996, but the Democratic state central committee picked Serna as the party’s nominee.
From 1985 until joining the Supreme Court, Serna served as a state district judge in Santa Fe. He was born in Reserve, located in southwestern New Mexico, and earned his law degree from the University of Denver law school. He was an assistant state attorney general in 1975-79.
“The time has come for me to move on to the next chapter of my life — my new season,” Serna said in a statement.