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Judging judges: ‘We want to be fair’

Mary Marlowe Sommer is chief judge in the 1st Judicial District. She and other judges who were evaluated by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission all received retention recommendations. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As people cast their votes for the 2020 general election, every 1st Judicial District Court judge has their name on the ballot for a retention or general election vote.

To help voters, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) evaluated judges and made retention recommendations. The evaluations serve to help the judges themselves by providing feedback from attorneys, court and resource staff.

The commission is made up of court professionals who interviewed judges, observed them in the courtroom and surveyed staff.

The commission recommended retaining all 1st Judicial District Court judges, with the exception of two relatively new judges who weren’t evaluated. JPEC won’t evaluate a judge without two years of data.

JPEC Chairwoman Denise Torres said most judges really enjoy getting feedback from the commission.

“If you’re a judge, people laugh at your jokes, even if they’re not funny,” Torres said. “They never say a cross word to you for very obvious reasons, so this is one of the only times that judges get what we hope to be helpful feedback.”

Most 1st Judicial District Court judges received positive scores on all three JPEC rating categories: attorneys, court staff and resource staff. Judges must get 57% of the vote to be retained, a percentage decided by the state Legislature.

Up for retention

Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, an adult and juvenile criminal court judge, had the lowest attorney rating, with only 48% of attorneys recommending to retain her. Her highest score was 83% from court staff.

Marlowe Sommer, who is in her 11th year on the bench, said she welcomed the feedback, despite lower scores than her past JPEC evaluation.

“I respect the process JPEC undertakes. It certainly helped me to address my approach on the bench and implement positive changes, which JPEC recognized in recommending that I be retained,” she said in an email.

Torres said JPEC recommended to retain Marlowe Sommer because she made an extraordinary effort to improve and change her scores. Torres said the commission was impressed with the changes Marlowe Sommer made before her JPEC interview and believes she can improve her scores.

“If you compare her scores to these judges that we voted not to retain, you’re gonna say, ‘Wow, her scores were that low, too.’ The difference is the effort that she made to change that,” Torres said. “We really believed that she could turn this around. Now, if in the next round of surveys her scores stay the same, we have to reevaluate that.”

As chief judge, Marlowe Sommer created the courthouse COVID-19 safety plan. It was challenging, she said, but a team effort. She said she’s proud of the participation of employees and the public in the plan.

“I think a common challenge is being misunderstood, or a decision I make being misunderstood,” she said in an email. “Oftentimes, the public is presented with a limited perspective of a case without the benefit of the court’s birds-eye view.”

Criminal Court Judge Glenn Ellington got a low rating from attorneys, with 65% voting to retain him. His highest score was 95% from resource staff.

Torres said JPEC has a research and polling team to make sure groups of attorneys don’t get together to rig the survey. The commission can pull the survey results and see the attorneys’ affiliations, she said.

“If we recognize that there could be something unfair that skews the numbers, we really study it,” she said. “We really try to figure it out because we want to be fair.”

Before becoming a judge, Ellington worked as a public defender and was previously on the court of appeals. He said being a judge is fulfilling work and it’s a way for him to contribute to the community.

As a judge, Ellington said his job is to apply the law, not create it. This means being scholarly, keeping up with changing laws and putting those nuances into practice.

“Being a judge is not easy and much of what you do is not fun. We deal with people who are in some of the lowest points in their lives, in very, very complicated situations,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding job because you get to apply the law in a way that people’s issues are resolved.”

Family Court Judge Sylvia LaMar got JPEC scores ranging from 75% to 87% across the three categories. LaMar said she loves the challenges being a family court judge poses because every case is different and every family is unique.

“Most of the people who are in my court are self represented, so they’re scared to death or nervous about the process,” LaMar said. “I believe that I have the ability to listen carefully and make a decision that hopefully works for the families.”

Civil Court Judge Francis Mathew was the only 1st Judicial District Court judge to get 100% of court staff recommending to retain him.

For Mathew, being a judge is the best job in the world. He thinks he’s done a good job as a judge, which his JPEC scores reflect.

“What I enjoy about the job is the interaction,” Mathew said. “At the trial level, you have a lot of interaction with people. You see different problems, you see different areas of the law, and that makes for a challenging day, oftentimes, which is why you come to work.”

Any time Mathew gets a negative response, he says he wants to improve in those areas. He received feedback in which people viewed his knowledge of the law negatively. Since then, he spends more time preparing for hearings, legal research and reading pleadings more closely, he said.

Civil Court Judge Matthew Wilson’s highest JPEC score was 92% from court resource staff. His lowest score was 82% from attorneys electing to retain him.

“You impact people’s lives every day,” Wilson said. “You have an opportunity as a judge to make decisions that protect people’s fundamental rights and basic freedoms, and that is critical to our democracy.”

Wilson practiced as an attorney for 16 years before serving as a judge for the past seven. During jury trials, he said he likes seeing the U.S. Constitution come “alive” in the courtroom.

First Judicial District Court Judges Jason Lidyard, criminal, and Maria Sanchez-Gagne, civil, have insufficient data for a JPEC recommendation since they’ve only been on the bench since 2018.

Neither Lidyard and Sanchez-Gagne participated in Journal interviews or answered emailed questions.

General election judges

Judges Shannon Broderick Bulman, Bryan Biedscheid and Kathleen McGarry were appointed to their positions and are on the ballot for the general election for the first time. All are running uncontested and do not have JPEC evaluations. They must get a simple majority vote to win their seat.

For McGarry, as a civil, abuse and neglect, and habeas corpus judge, she said she’s still learning the ropes and hopes voters will give her the opportunity to continue being a judge.

She practiced law for 33 years before becoming a judge and said she will use that experience to help serve the community. She said she loves legal challenges and putting her legal experience to good use.

“I believe I am a fair person and have the ability to see both sides of a legal issue,” she said in an email. “A judge should be impartial and yet compassionate. My legal experience and life experience will assist the community in the cases that they bring to the First Judicial District Court.”

Civil Judge Bryan Biedscheid has served as a judge for the past 18 months and was a private practice attorney before that. He said being a judge has expanded his legal knowledge and he’s amazed at how much he’s learned.

“Every member of our community should vote in this election and electing me is not the most important decision on the ballot,” Biedscheid said. “However, when the voters get far enough down the ballot to reach my ‘First Judicial District Court Div. 6’ line, they should know that I was interviewed by a bipartisan nominating commission and I was found to be qualified for this position.”

Biedscheid said he wants to improve in all aspects, but specifically being more succinct, improving his listening skills and understanding courthouse functions as a whole – not only what’s on his own docket.

Torres said it’s important that the state has good judges and that people who go before them feel like they’re treated fairly. The JPEC evaluations help guide them in that direction.

“Our judges here in New Mexico, we try to hold them to a high standard,” Torres said. “We want them to uphold the values of the judiciary because we want the judiciary to be respected.”

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