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Four in the running for Supreme Court appointment

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham must choose one of four candidates – all current or former district or appeals court judges – to serve on New Mexico’s highest court.

On Thursday the New Mexico Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission recommended former 12th Judicial District Judge James Waylon Counts, 6th Judicial District Judge Jennifer Ellen DeLaney, and Court of Appeals judges Julie Vargas and Briana Zamora to replace outgoing Justice Judith Nakamura.

Lujan Grisham will now appoint one of the candidates to the high court. Nakamura, a former chief justice, will retire Dec. 1.

The commission interviewed the candidates virtually Thursday. Other candidates were 2nd Judicial District Judge Victor Lopez and lawyers Steven Michel and Frank Victor Crociata.

DeLaney, who has lived in Deming for 18 years, said it was important to have someone from a rural area on the high court.

“The Supreme Court represents the judiciary for the whole state of New Mexico, not solely the Rio Grande corridor,” DeLaney said. “And so I think it’s important to have a voice from outside of that area on the court to ensure that every voice is heard.”

Counts retired from his district court seat just a few weeks ago, but says he still has the energy to serve on the Supreme Court.

“Simply because I retired in no way means that I intend to kick back or not give my full time and energy to anything that I undertake,” Count said. “I retired because I feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish on the district court. … I just felt like the Supreme Court bench is a better fit right now.”

Zamora was a judge in the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque before being elected to the Court of Appeals in 2018, and says her experience managing a courthouse budget will help when addressing the statewide judicial budget.

“I’m unsure what lies ahead financially in the judiciary, but I’m fully prepared to work to ensure the courts get adequate funding and to ensure that we move forward in a fiscally responsible manner,” Zamora said.

Vargas has been on the Court of Appeals since 2016. In that time she said she has helped the court work more efficiently and believes virtual court hearings might be here to stay.

“I think we found that some of that is a little more efficient than bringing everyone in to the courtroom and having a hearing on every motion,” Vargas said. “I do think the Supreme Court is going to play an important role in getting the judiciary back to where it was before the pandemic hit. We’re going to have to be creative.”

The governor has 30 days from the date she receives the list of nominees to make an appointment.

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