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NM courts seek constitutional amendment

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s judiciary is asking the state Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment that would relieve some of the immediate political pressure on newly appointed judges.

In a recent legislative hearing, Judith Nakamura, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said the amendment would allow judges to serve on the bench for at least a year before they have to run in a partisan election.

New Mexico has had trouble attracting qualified judicial candidates, Nakamura said, especially in election years, when someone could be appointed to the bench, then lose an election just a few months later.

“In some jurisdictions,” she told lawmakers, “our court was dialing for judges, calling local attorneys begging them to apply.”

The salaries of District Court judges also hurt recruitment, Nakamura said, especially among attorneys in private practice. In New Mexico, district judges make a little less than $120,000 a year, low enough to rank 50th out of 51 jurisdictions – 50 states and Washington, D.C. – even after adjusting for the cost of living, according to the National Center for State Courts.

The proposed amendment on partisan elections would have to win approval from both chambers of the Legislature and then go before voters, probably in 2020.

Arthur Pepin, director the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the one-year period would ensure voters have a chance to evaluate a judge’s actual performance on the bench.

“It gives (voters) at least a year to see what they need to see about a person’s service as a judge, their judicial temperament, their ability to move cases,” Pepin said.

Ensuring that newly appointed judges spend at least a year on the bench would also reduce transition costs for courts and minimize the disruption to litigants who might otherwise have their cases reassigned when a judge loses an election, according to documents the judiciary submitted to the Legislative Finance Committee.

New Mexico already has a hybrid system intended to dampen partisanship and boost public confidence in the judiciary. But it doesn’t entirely insulate judges from political pressure.

As things stand now, a nonpartisan judicial nominating commission screens applicants and forwards the names of qualified candidates to the governor, who then appoints someone.

But the appointee has to run in the next election – with party labels under the candidates’ names – to keep the seat. If successful, the judge is then up for retention periodically in following elections, without party labels attached.

This year’s judicial campaigns took a partisan turn when a political action committee funded largely by trial lawyers launched attack ads against five Republican judges who had been appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.

In a TV ad, the judges were depicted as puppets of Martinez, with her pulling the strings.

All five judges lost in this month’s general election.

Two of them were appointed just this year. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, they wouldn’t have been on the ballot this time.

The courts haven’t lined up a sponsor for the legislation yet. The Legislature meets for a 60-day session, starting Jan. 15.

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