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Editorial: It’s past time for DC to unclog longtime federal court jam

Last week, President Joe Biden nominated 11 people for judicial posts, including Las Cruces civil rights and defense attorney Margaret Strickland to fill the judgeship in Las Cruces that has been vacant for more than 30 months.

It’s an important, if expected, move to finally get the wheels of federal justice moving in New Mexico.

The last time the U.S. Senate confirmed a federal judge for the District of New Mexico was pre-pandemic – in December 2019, state District Judge Kea Riggs of Roswell filled one of three judicial vacancies in the District of New Mexico. Since then, pure partisan politics have delayed new confirmations and slowed the administration of justice in one of the busiest federal district courts in the nation.

With a Democrat in the White House, it’s likely the logjam has been broken for the foreseeable future. That’s overdue good news for anyone who has business before the court. The federal court in New Mexico has long been one of the busiest in the country, especially in terms of federal felony filings, in part because of the large number of drug and immigration cases. New Mexico’s judges on the federal bench have been “crushed” by civil and criminal caseloads – each had more than 900 cases before Riggs was confirmed. In recent years, it’s become all too common for out-of-state federal judges to have to come to New Mexico’s rescue to hear lawsuits to help ease our backlog, which had been exacerbated by our own raw partisan politics.

The way it works: U.S. senators from the various federal court districts send a group of potential judicial nominees to the president, who traditionally chooses to nominate one of those recommended, whose fate hinges on Senate confirmation. The process worked when Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., sent names, including Riggs,’ to former President Donald Trump, but Trump’s other judicial pick from their May 2018 list, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Sweazea of Las Cruces, was inexplicably never heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Then late last September, as the presidential election approached, Udall and Heinrich withdrew their support for the May 2020 nominations of First Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred J. Federici III and Albuquerque attorney Brenda Saiz. Our senators pulled the rug out from under their own nominees – both rated as “well qualified,” the highest possible ranking by the American Bar Association – because, they said, Trump “insisted on politicizing the judicial appointment process in his remarks at a thinly veiled campaign event at the White House.”

It was clear retaliation for Trump’s moving forward with the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg weeks before the presidential election. No matter how unhappy our senators were with that move, they turned it into a case of two wrongs don’t make a right when they opted to leave New Mexicans who have waited, and waited, for justice to be delivered without enough federal judges to hear their cases.

When Trump lost, the nominations were scuttled, and the District of New Mexico has remained two judges short of the seven authorized by Congress.

Strickland should be confirmed in quick order – she is also “well qualified.” She began her career at the state Law Offices of the Public Defender in 2006 and went into private practice in 2011, representing clients in civil rights and criminal cases. She’s well suited for the current environment of police reform, having been president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and an attorney who won a $1.6 million verdict from the Las Cruces Police Department in 2017 in an excessive-force case.

With a “steady drumbeat” of judicial nominations expected this year from Biden, it’s likely our two Democrats in the Senate, Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, will retain the courage of their convictions and get New Mexico’s federal bench up to its full strength. Politics aside, that’s a good thing. New Mexicans deserve timely decisions from their federal courtrooms in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Roswell, Santa Fe and Silver City.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.