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Chief justice tells legislators courts can ‘breathe’ again

SANTA FE – Two years ago, the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court said the state’s court system was on “life support” due to budget cuts and smothering caseloads.

The courts’ condition has since improved, new Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told lawmakers during a joint session of the Legislature, even if there are still challenges facing the judicial branch.

“I am pleased – and relieved – to report that our courts are beginning to breathe on their own,” Nakamura said in her 36-minute State of the Judiciary address on Thursday.

A new computer system has helped ensure the judiciary can pay jurors on time, and vacancy rates in state magistrate courts have dropped by about 10 percent in recent years, Nakamura said.

“We are no longer routinely losing our employees to places like Target and Walmart that, in some communities, paid better than the courts,” she said.

However, Nakamura said New Mexico’s court system is still too prone to delays and can be confusing for members of the public to navigate.

She also said some pay levels for judges have made it hard for the court system to attract new blood.

In 2017, there were an average of six applicants per judicial vacancy, Nakamura said. That dropped to just over two applicants per vacancy last year.

New Mexico judicial pay is among the nation’s lowest, as state district judges make $126,186 a year. Supreme Court justices take home slightly more.

“Lawyers with experience in the private sector, including law firms, say that judicial salaries keep them from applying to be judges,” Nakamura said, adding that the average partner in a New Mexico law firm gets paid 51 percent more than a state Supreme Court justice.

In the midst of an unprecedented revenue windfall, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee both have proposed salary increases for judges in their spending plans for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The governor’s budget recommendation calls for a 5 percent pay hike for judges, and the LFC’s plan calls for a 6 percent increase.

Meanwhile, Nakamura also defended judges from criticism – particularly in the Albuquerque area – over defendants being released before trial.

“I promise you, there is not a single judge, not one, who intends to release a dangerous person into the community,” she said. “We are all New Mexicans, and we, too, want to live in safe communities.”

A former longtime Metro Court and District Court judge in Albuquerque, Nakamura was appointed to the Supreme Court by then-Gov. Susana Martinez in November 2015.

She then won election to the Supreme Court in 2016, becoming the first Republican to be elected to New Mexico’s highest court since 1980.

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