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Judge: Commission evaluations impact retention

The outgoing Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court chief judge says a state-funded commission’s unfavorable evaluation of his performance had a direct effect on voters’ decision to oust him.

Edward Benavidez

Of the four judges who received “do not retain” recommendations this year, Edward Benavidez and Kenny Montoya failed to garner the 57 percent of votes required to stay on the bench, while Linda Rogers and Michelle Castillo Dowler kept their jobs by tiny margins, according to unofficial election results.

Meanwhile, the 14 judges the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recommended for retention easily received the required votes to keep their jobs for the next four years.

“They absolutely have an impact on retention elections; they admit it themselves,” said Benavidez, who has been on the Metro Court for 10 years. “There’s no questioning that when they come out with ‘do not retains’ for whoever the judge is, it has a direct impact on their voting numbers.”

Benavidez said in an interview Thursday that the commission “meddled in, interfered with and absolutely affected” his retention election. He said he thinks it’s inappropriate for a government agency to tell people how to vote and questioned why elected officials working in other branches of government aren’t subjected to similar evaluations.

“JPEC uses state money to openly and actively campaign against those judges they subjectively decide to give a ‘do not retain’ recommendation to,” he said.

Montoya did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court created JPEC in 1997 as a nonpartisan volunteer commission charged with providing credible and useful information to voters, according to the 2018 retention report. It makes recommendations based on courtroom observations, interviews and surveys sent to attorneys, court staff and law enforcement officers.

James Hall, JPEC’s vice chairman, said in a statement that “appropriated funds are intended, and used, to facilitate communication of JPEC’s recommendations to voters.”

Patti Watson, a spokeswoman for JPEC, could not comment on election outcomes, but said voters have followed the commission’s recommendations fairly frequently in the past.

While it is unusual for a judge to lose a retention election, it is not unheard of. Voters did not retain two Metro Court judges in 2002 and another in 2010, according to JPEC’s website.

Kenny Montoya

All of those judges received “do not retain” recommendations from the commission.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., said this and previous elections show that a judge who is recommended for retention by JPEC on average receives 13 percent more yes votes than those marked “do not retain.” Those recommended for retention received an average of 69.5 percent yes votes.

“Whenever judges have to go to their interviews everybody’s like on pins and needles because this has such an impact,” Benavidez said. “If you upset them, things can go against you and it’s gonna cost you your job.”

According to the JPEC evaluations, both Montoya and Benavidez received relatively low retention recommendations from attorneys who were surveyed, and they received low ratings in categories including exercising sound legal reasoning and being knowledgeable regarding substantive law.

Benavidez and Montoya’s positions will become vacant Jan. 1.

Within 30 days, a Judicial Nominating Commission will select qualified candidates to send to the governor to be considered for appointment.

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