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Editorial: 2 proposed constitutional amendments deserve ‘yes’

Early voting for the Nov. 6 general election at dozens of sites throughout New Mexico begins Saturday. The Journal is endorsing candidates in contested statewide races and races in the Albuquerque metro area, as well as giving recommendations on the bond issues and amendments on the ballot. Today we start with the two proposed amendments to the state Constitution:

Amendment No. 1 – Yes. It proposes a

mending Article 6 of the Constitution of New Mexico to give the Legislature authority to provide for appellate jurisdiction by statute.

Voters should give this amendment a green light because it could reduce caseloads for overburdened district court judges while eliminating an unnecessary layer of appeal and saving litigants and taxpayers money. And it’s backed by the judiciary and the vast majority of lawmakers.

Constitutional Amendment No. 1 would eliminate an existing requirement that appeals from Metropolitan, magistrate, probate and other lower courts go directly to state District Court. The amendment would give state lawmakers the authority to determine, through legislation, where appeals of lower court cases – such matters as drunken driving and domestic violence – should be filed.

Currently any appeals from Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Court must be filed in Second Judicial District Court instead of going directly to the state Court of Appeals. This doesn’t make sense. Metro Court is a court of record – meaning that its proceedings are recorded and preserved for the possibility of appeal; all Metro Court Judges have law degrees; and Second Judicial District Court has a heavy caseload and relieving the court of these appeals would free it up to focus on other matters.

Lawmakers would need to be deliberate in how they implement their new authority from this amendment. While it makes sense for Metro Court decisions to be appealed directly to the Court of Appeals, it doesn’t make sense to do the same thing with magistrates because they’re not courts of record and magistrate judges are not necessarily lawyers. Also, the state Court of Appeals will need a significant infusion of resources to take on all Metro Court appeals.

The Journal recommends “yes” on Amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 2 – Yes. It proposes a mending Article 5 of the Constitution of New Mexico to create an independent state ethics commission with jurisdiction to investigate, adjudicate and issue advisory opinions concerning civil violations of laws governing ethics, standards of conduct and reporting requirements as provided by law.

Former state Sen. Phil Griego, from rural San Miguel County, is serving a prison sentence after being convicted of fraud, bribery and pocketing money from his campaign account. Ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran resigned in disgrace and pleaded guilty in 2015 to using campaign funds to cover a gambling habit.

Former state Senate leader Manny Aragon served more than four years in federal prison for his part in an Albuquerque courthouse kickback scheme. And former state treasurers Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya were also sentenced to federal prison for corruption. There’s been no shortage of corruption scandals in New Mexico in recent years, but not all of the bad behavior was wrapped up with convictions and the state officials shipped off to prison cells for their misdeeds. It’s time for New Mexicans to rise up and say enough – and voting for Amendment No. 2, which would create an independent ethics commission in our state, is a way to do that. This commission would have subpoena power and the ability to get to the bottom of allegations against state officials, legislative employees, lobbyists and government contractors. New Mexico is one of only six states without an ethics commission.

That’s unacceptable. This amendment would enshrine the ethics commission in the state constitution, which would mean powerful politicians who are up to no good wouldn’t be able to kill it without going to voters. The amendment only creates a framework for the seven-member commission; details would need to be worked out by state lawmakers.

An independent ethics commission would bolster public confidence in state government and replace a fragmented system for handling ethics complaints, in which jurisdiction depends on who’s being accused and investigations often take place in secret. It’s time for voters to demand ethical behavior from state officials and put a system in place holding them accountable when they fail to live up to that standard.

The Journal recommends “yes” on Amendment No. 2.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.