As teachers of law who seek to instill in our students respect for the rule of law and for the judges who administer it, we wish to respond to the attacks on Chief Judge Louis McDonald by three lawmakers as reported under the (Jan. 29) front-page headline “Republican lawmakers want judge to resign.”
Perhaps the lawmakers were acting on the belief that Ms. Noriega received only a sentence of three years imprisonment. But as the Journal article notes, Judge McDonald sentenced Noriega to 30 years in prison, not three years, but suspended the sentence for the remaining 27 years if she commits no violation of the terms of her probation for five years after she is released from prison. Perhaps, too, the lawmakers were unaware, as the Journal reported, that the judge considered recommendations from the New Mexico Department of Corrections and that the psychologist’s report following a 60-day diagnostic evaluation recommended as short a sentence of incarceration as possible. It was also reported, and known by the judge, that Noriega had no prior criminal or DWI history.
This is not to say that any person with full knowledge of the circumstances cannot express an opinion about the wisdom of the sentence. But calling for the resignation of a judge because the lawmakers disagree with the judge’s ruling is an inappropriate and unfair response that undermines the integrity of the judiciary and promotes disrespect for the rule of law. The New Mexico Code of Judicial Conduct forbids judges from responding to extrajudicial attacks in pending cases. Once the judge has ruled, the judge cannot offer public justification for his or her decision in response to criticism of the judge’s ruling. To call for the dismissal of a judge based upon a simple disagreement with the judge’s ruling endangers judicial independence, a critical aspect of our justice system.
The Code of Judicial Conduct requires that judges not be influenced by public opinion or fear of criticism so that they can make decisions based on the law and the facts, and not by whether the decisions meet with applause or disfavor by segments of the public. New Mexico deserves judges who make decisions without fear of repercussion, especially from members of a co-equal branch of government.
Judge McDonald has enjoyed a long and distinguished career serving the cause of justice in New Mexico. He has a reputation for fairly administering the law for all persons who appear before him. We have no doubt that this conscientious judge applied his considerable skill and experience in assessing the facts and law before determining the appropriate sentence to impose on Noriega. Judge McDonald made a difficult decision in a difficult case. That decision may legitimately be criticized by persons who have knowledge of the facts and who disagree with his ruling. What is not appropriate is to rashly insist that Judge McDonald resign because some lawmakers disagree with the decision.
Judge McDonald deserves our support and our respect for doing the hard work of judging. Whether we agree with the decision or not, he performs the essential work that keeps our democracy secure. He is a judge true to the command of the Judicial Code of Conduct “to uphold and apply the law … and perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially.”
The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and are not necessarily the views of UNM or the UNM School of Law.