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Bill targets ‘pay to play’ judiciary perceptions

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For Trish Lopez, navigating a custody dispute in Albuquerque’s Family Court shined light on some little-known parts of New Mexico’s court system.

Trish Lopez stands outside her Downtown Albuquerque office on Friday. Her experience in Family Court led her to push for a new state law expanding public campaigning financing to more types of New Mexico judicial races.

While Lopez represented herself in the dispute, the law firm for the opposing counsel in the case had made campaign contributions to the judge assigned to the case.

The situation, which is not uncommon, prompted her to launch a petition that has drawn nearly 4,000 signatures and push for changes in state law.

“It’s certainly a statewide problem in New Mexico,” Lopez told the Journal. “It’s a for-profit system and we really need to pay more attention.”

In part in response to her efforts, a bill that would allow District Court judges to qualify for public campaign financing – and avoid the need for privately-funded campaigns – has been filed at the Roundhouse.

The measure, Senate Bill 160, cleared its first Senate committee via a 7-3 vote on Friday after several sitting judges testified in support.

District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid, who was unopposed in his election campaign last year, said the change would increase confidence in New Mexico’s judicial system and bring more transparency.

Under the state’s current system, he said judicial candidates have to perform “campaign acrobatics” by running privately-funded campaigns while, at the same time, trying to follow guidelines that discourage them from knowing their donors’ identities.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez went even further in written testimony in support of the bill, saying that soliciting campaign funds can harm the judiciary’s legitimacy.

“This bill helps to remove the appearance that courts are a pay-to-play system of justice – that decisions are made based on which person, business or special interest group contributed to the judge’s election,” Chávez wrote.

However, skeptics of the bill pointed out it would not stop political committees from spending hefty sums of money on New Mexico judicial races.

“The truth is the trial attorneys and corporations will still be able to set up their dark money operations,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, who voted against the legislation.

And Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, questioned whether it would be harder for judicial candidates in rural parts of New Mexico to qualify for the public financing option than it would be for candidates in Albuquerque and other more populated areas.

But supporters of the legislation say it would be a step toward reducing the impact of money in judicial elections.

“(Judges) really want to focus on their court docket, and not on fundraising for their campaigns,” said Sydney Tellez of Common Cause New Mexico, an open government group that backs the proposal.

While the option is currently not available for lower court judges, New Mexico has allowed statewide judicial candidates – or those running for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals seats – to qualify for public financing since 2008.

Judicial candidates who opt for public financing receive distributions from a public election fund that is financed in part by proceeds from unclaimed property, such as abandoned personal bank accounts and stocks.

How much candidates receive in public financing is based on numbers of registered voters eligible to cast ballots in their races.

The state also has a public financing system for Public Regulation Commission candidates, but voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that will turn the PRC into an appointed – not elected – body and the bill approved Friday would remove them from the state’s Voter Action Act, the law that governs public financing.

Backers say that would offset much of the cost posed by adding District Court judges to the mix, though they warned it’s unclear exactly how many candidates would seek public campaign funds.

In order to qualify, candidates would have to obtain a number of small contributions from voters, though the exact figure would depend on which judicial district they were running in.

“Frankly, it shouldn’t be too easy to get public funds for a campaign,” said Sen. Katy Duhigg, a Democrat who is a former Albuquerque city clerk and is co-sponsoring the legislation.

The bill, which is also sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, now advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lopez, who runs a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque, said after Friday’s hearing she’s optimistic about the bill’s chances for approval during this year’s 60-day session.

“Public financing is not going to make unethical people ethical,” she said. “But it addresses one obvious problem – lawyers shouldn’t be financing judges who are presiding over their cases.”

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