ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ethics rules bar judges from speaking in any depth about current hot button issues of the day, because a case involving the topic may come before them.
Their focus instead is on experience. This year’s race for a vacancy on the New Mexico Supreme Court is no exception.
Paul J. Kennedy, an incumbent justice seeking election to the post following an interim appointment, says he has more experience in the law than his opponent by virtue of his 36 years of practice, including pioneering work litigating on behalf of women sexually abused in prisons and jails.
Barbara Vigil, chief judge of the 1st Judicial District, says her 12 years as a district judge in Santa Fe, most of it in children’s court, has prepared her for the rigors of the Supreme Court, including its substantial duties overseeing the administration of all the state’s courts.
Kennedy, 63, is a Republican appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Patricio Serna.
The Democratic state central committee chose Vigil, 53, over three others to run for the office in the Nov. 6 election. She initially was appointed to District Court in May 2000 by then-Gov. Gary Johnson and won election to the seat six months later.
Kennedy has the advantage of prior experience on the high court: In 2002 he, too, was appointed by Johnson to fill a vacancy, though that time he was content to be an interim justice and didn’t seek election. He spent three months on the Supreme Court.
“The truth of the matter is, because I didn’t have a campaign, I hit the ground running and cleared out a lot (of pending cases). I turned out six opinions, two of them published,” he said. That work was done while handling all the other things that come before the high court – writs and prisoner petitions among them.
Vigil believes her decade in children’s and family court “gave me unique experience regarding dealing with families in crisis,” she said. “I was involved in a juvenile justice initiative and creating a juvenile justice board in northern New Mexico” that addressed issues of delinquency.
“It certainly helps to know the needs of the community,” she said.
Vigil, along with other judges, was evaluated in 2008 by the nonprofit Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which uses interviews and surveys of those involved in the legal process to decide whether the judge should be recommended for retention.
Vigil received positive scores from court and resource staff, including children’s advocates, volunteers and law enforcement, for courtesy and professionalism.
Her scores among attorneys, however, were mixed. They found she maintained proper control over proceedings, but gave her lower scores in such categories as avoiding prejudging cases, treating all participants equally and knowledge of the law, rules of procedure and rules of evidence.
Vigil said that evaluation was helpful in making improvements to her performance.
“I find evaluations very useful,” she said. “I don’t think anyone expects full marks in all areas. … I think the next evaluation would show improvement in those areas. Certainly as opposed to my opponent I have been evaluated, which is better than not being evaluated.”
Kennedy notes he’s been twice included on the Supreme Court short list by Judicial Nominating Committees.
“I notice my opponent didn’t apply (for the Supreme Court), and she’s had numerous opportunities over the years,” he said.
In addition, he said, “I think anyone would tell you I acquitted myself well the last time I was here.”
Kennedy said he has a wide variety of criminal and civil litigation, in both state and federal courts.
“I certainly have done any number of high-profile cases over the years,” he said. “When people get in trouble they tend to call me, among others. As lawyers we try to help people out at the worst times of their lives.”
He was counsel to Gov. Susana Martinez during the transition and represented her again on redistricting. He does not think that representation affects his ability to serve, nor would it affect the outcome of a case.
Kennedy says he takes the same approach as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who was solicitor general before her appointment to the court, a job in which she represented the United States in cases.
“If something came before me that I had given advice on before, I would recuse. If it’s something that I handled, I would of course recuse,” he said.
Vigil grew up in Santa Fe, one of four sisters and a brother. Her mother died when Vigil was 12, and the girls went to St. Catherine’s School as boarders, returning to the family home on weekends. She earned an accounting degree from New Mexico State University and a law degree from the University of New Mexico, and says she learned the value of work and of education.
She was an assistant attorney general, a litigation attorney for state Risk Management and a lawyer in private practice before her appointment to the bench.
Kennedy is the oldest of 13 children. He grew up in Philadelphia and came to New Mexico after graduating from St. Joseph’s College and earning a law degree at Georgetown University.
He lived for five years in Grants before moving to Albuquerque. He opened his own office in 1978 and has tried over 100 cases before a jury and handled almost as many appeals. Among his more notable cases was acting as a special prosecutor for the Legislature seeking the impeachment of former state Treasurer Robert Vigil for public corruption in office.
Vigil says her strengths come from her personal and professional life.
“My experience is broad and deep as a judge,” she said. “I have a greater understanding of the operations of the judiciary statewide. My experiences of life help shape who we are, and (my own) challenges and hardships enable me to understand challenges people have who come before the court.”
Though the current race by law is a partisan one, Kennedy says judging isn’t about partisanship. Once elected in a partisan race, judges are subject only to retention elections.
He said his judicial colleagues “have never made a partisan remark about any case or about me. …I don’t think partisan politics has any place (on the court).”
“You take each case and look at facts and look at law and try to come to an honest opinion,” he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal