Our nation’s courts have been under attack. Wealthy special interest groups bombard state and federal judiciaries with waves of dark, untraceable money, turning formerly sleepy occasions of judicial selection into big-dollar affairs. Their goal is clear – to gain more influence over our judiciary and drown out the public’s voice.
As we have seen from the recent leak from SCOTUS, state courts will be instrumental in deciding rights that were once seen as fundamental. Everything from abortion, same-sex marriage, segregation, and our rights to privacy could be moved to the state level for decision. If there was ever a doubt that state courts are essential to our democracy, this made it clear that our state judges may now be the final say in how “free” each of us can be.
As U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, recently stated, “Our Supreme Court is awash in dark money influence. The American people may not be able to see all of the rot, but they can see enough to know that something is rotten.”
New Mexico has been an exception to this troubling trend, and we should maintain that. In the Land of Enchantment, we’ve decided that our judges shouldn’t be politicians and, as such, shouldn’t need to fundraise to be elected. In 2021, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to expand our Voter Action Act (VAA) to include district court races – an accomplishment every New Mexican should be proud of.
Thanks to this change, judicial candidates, if they wish, can now run campaigns focused on their credentials rather than fundraising. We all believe that New Mexico courts should be staffed with qualified judges who represent the values of their communities. But all too often community-based candidates cannot afford to run. By removing barriers and empowering more New Mexicans to run for a judicial seat, this update to the VAA helps to make our courts more representative.
Our data already shows the new voter-owned judicial elections program is a success. Of the nine statewide judicial candidates running for office in 2022, all except one have applied to participate, and five district court candidates have already qualified for the program. This is great news for our courts.
Like sports referees, judges should appear impartial to preserve public confidence. Since voter-owned elections allow for independent campaigns, these judicial candidates don’t need to worry about the optics of accepting money from groups who may end up standing before them in a courtroom. That means fewer potential conflicts of interest and a justice system for everyone, not just contributors. After all, the only way to have fair and impartial courts is to have fair judicial elections.
State judges can have the final say on critical issues like educational funding, access to health care and the ballot box, worker protections and (others that affect) our daily lives. With so much at stake, it’s essential New Mexicans trust in their courts. Voter-owned judicial elections are a huge step in achieving that trust.
Common Cause New Mexico is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.