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Editorial: Appeals Court on notice it must attack case backlog

It’s clear the “persistent and historically large backlog” of cases gumming up the works in the New Mexico Court of Appeals has myriad complex and long-standing causes.

But if you are among the hundreds of New Mexicans with an appeal before the court, you don’t care about the reason for the delay – you just want the court’s learned opinion. Yesterday.

On one level we can all sympathize that it is difficult for an organization to perform at top productivity when:

• There’s been nonstop turnover, with 21 judges on the 10-judge panel in just the past four years.

• Five appellate judges had to mount political campaigns last year and so were assigned just one new case a month from September through November.

• Those five all left the court after the 2018 election: one won a seat on the Supreme Court, and the others lost their reelection bids. All their caseloads, including 32 opinions considered overdue, went to new judges who essentially started from scratch.

• Several judges retired between December 2015 and February 2018, and in their last months on the bench took no new cases so they could complete their remaining opinions.

But again, all that pales if your case is among the 108 awaiting an opinion or 286 ready to be submitted for a written opinion. You just want the court to hurry up and do its job. And the New Mexico Supreme Court and Legislature have now issued a series of nudges in that direction.

In December and again in April, the high court noted each of the 10 Court of Appeals judges needs to write at least four opinions a month to reduce the backlog. Only Judge Linda Vanzi has been hitting/exceeding that workload regularly. Both orders include language “that all Court of Appeals judges shall devote as much time as is necessary to meet the case processing deadlines and requirements in this order, which shall include working evenings, weekends and holidays.”

To help with the backlog, last year lawmakers increased funding to increase the number of law clerks for each judge, and they added a bit of insurance that productivity would increase. The Legislative Finance Committee will start issuing Appeals Court report cards starting in July.

The bottom line is these are important cases that impact the public. The functionality of our judicial system relies on a solid appeals system that offers parties the opportunity to ensure justice is done. Regardless of how the backlog arose, the court is on notice it needs to buckle down and reduce it. That July report card is just weeks away.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.