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Judiciary seeks changes in laws

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: This article was corrected to reflect that the judiciary will be pursuing two constitutional amendments and several statutory changes during the upcoming legislative session.

Allowing judges to remain in office for at least one full year before they have to participate in the next partisan election, and allowing counties to close probate courts and transfer jurisdiction to a state court, are two constitutional amendments being proposed as part of the judiciary’s legislative agenda this year, said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura.

The amendments, if approved by the Legislature, would then go to voters to approve or reject during the next general election.

“A lot of the problems the judiciary has are organizational,” Nakamura said in a meeting with Journal editors. If given the authority to move judges around, “we could build a better system with fewer bodies and locations.”

One proposed amendment would allow a county commission the option of transferring jurisdiction of the probate court to a state court upon approval of the Supreme Court. The courts are also seeking changes to state statute, including one change that would give more municipalities the option of transferring jurisdiction over municipal ordinances to magistrate court, pending Supreme Court approval.

Currently, some counties have a magistrate court overseen by the state, a municipal court overseen by the city and a probate court overseen by the county. Consolidating the cases into one court where possible would save taxpayers money, Nakamura said.

“By law, every county must have a probate court,” Nakamura said. “Also by law if you have more than 1,500 citizens you have to have a municipal court.” In many jurisdictions, the courts are underused.

For example, she noted, the city of Clayton, which has a population of about 2,980 residents, has district, magistrate, probate and municipal courts. In 2017, the probate court had 13 cases, the municipal court had about 1,200 cases and the magistrate court had 584 cases. That’s less than 2,000 cases total, which is a caseload easily handled by one judge, Nakamura said.

“But we can’t consolidate because of the current law, so these two proposals would allow a county or municipality, at the expiration of a judge’s term, to ask the state court to handle their probate and municipal cases,” most of which would go to the magistrate court.

The second Constitutional amendment would deal with judicial elections. Judges now appointed during an election year have to run for election even if that appointment came just months prior to the election. In some cases, an appointee might not even have enough time to get his or her name on the ballot.

As a result, few people are willing to apply for judgeships during an election year, Nakamura said. In 2017, there was an average of six applicants for every open judge position. That number dropped to one or two per opening in election year 2018.

The proposed amendment would allow a judicial appointee to sit for a full year before having to participate in an election.

“I believe the real answer is to eliminate politics altogether from these races, and perhaps after someone is appointed they stand for retention; but at a minimum, if we can get this (amendment), it will help us in election years,” Nakamura said.

Among the proposed statutory changes the court will be pursuing:

• Seek to allow on-record appeals from proceedings at Metropolitan Court in Bernalillo County to bypass state District Court and go directly to the Court of Appeals.

• Eliminate the mandate that people age 75 and older must prove their age by presenting a notarized affidavit in order to be permanently exempt from jury service. “It’s unnecessary. We have so many other ways to verify someone’s age,” Nakamura said.

• Require the Department of Corrections to notify the appropriate district attorney when a sex offender has been released so that a hearing can be set up in district court to review the terms, conditions and duration of the offender’s probation.

In order to become law, these proposed statutory changes would need to be approved by the House and Senate and signed by the governor.

The judiciary also has some funding requests as part of its agenda, Nakamura said.

It is asking for one-time funding of $1.8 million to permanently redact and upload a backlog of 80 million pages of documents in court databases, so anyone can search and obtain them without having to physically go to a court building to access them, or without having to make a request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, or IPRA.

There is also a one-time funding request of $450,000 to expand an online dispute resolution pilot program; $650,000 for judicial education through the Judicial Education Center at the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Public Law; and $550,000 for expanding the Release on Recognizance Program to all magistrate courts statewide by hiring additional personnel.

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