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Proposal would let Legislature stagger terms of judges

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A year after the New Mexico Supreme Court blocked part of a new election law from taking effect, state voters will decide whether to give the Legislature a chance for a redo.

The proposed Constitutional Amendment 2 would give lawmakers the authority to change the election cycles in which certain New Mexico elected offices appear on the ballot.

In other words, legislators would be able to adjust the terms of state, county or district offices so they could be staggered on the ballot.

Specifically, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored this year’s resolution calling for the change, said he planned to work with top state judicial branch officials to come up with a plan for staggering judges’ terms if the proposed amendment passes.

Under the state’s current system, all elections for district judges – including retention elections – happen in the same election cycle.

That leads to a large number of judges on the ballot in Bernalillo County and other populous counties; there are 94 district judges up for election or retention in this year’s general election statewide, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“How is the average voter supposed to have a good sense about who they’re retaining and why?” Ivey-Soto asked in an interview.

He also said the current system could also lead to a large number of judges being voted out at the polls in a single election, which could destabilize the judicial branch.

Ivey-Soto also said safeguards in the resolution would bar legislators from extending or reducing any elected terms by more than two years – and counting a shortened term for purposes of term limits.

“There is no scenario we could reduce someone’s allowed time in office if they’re subject to term limits,” he told the Journal.

In 2019, lawmakers passed a law that, among other things, sought to shift the election cycles for district attorneys, county officials and some state judges.

However, the Supreme Court blocked that part of the law from taking effect, ruling that such a move would be an “unconstitutional alteration” of existing terms of office.

That came after separate court challenges against the law. One was filed by district attorneys, while the other was brought by the New Mexico Association of Counties and a coalition of state judges and Metro Court judges.

However, New Mexico Association of Counties Executive Director Steve Kopelman said Monday that the group has not taken a position on this year’s proposed amendment.

Overall, unlike the other constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot – Constitutional Amendment 1 deals with the Public Regulation Commission and has drawn hefty outside spending – Constitutional Amendment 2 has largely flown under the radar.

No expenditures had been reported either in support or opposition to the proposed amendment as of Monday, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

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