Editorial: Journal announces endorsements for judicial candidates - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Journal announces endorsements for judicial candidates

Today, the Journal announces its endorsements for the New Mexico Supreme Court, the state Court of Appeals, and judicial positions up for retention statewide and on the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. For more information, including candidate Q&As, district maps and news stories, go to the Journal Election Guide at abqjournal.com.

Justice of the Supreme Court, Position 1

Republican Thomas C. Montoya

Thomas C. Montoya

Montoya, who has 41 years’ experience practicing civil family law, offers the all-Democrat state Supreme Court both practical experience and some political balance.

The Alameda native, whose ancestors have lived in New Mexico for more than 400 years, has been well-vetted, having qualified three times as a district court judge by Second District Judicial Nominating commissions. Unfortunately, he says Republicans, however qualified, have little hope of being appointed by a Democratic governor. So, he’s chosen to run for election instead.

“Choose balance, choose fairness,” he told the Editorial Board.

Montoya has broad and diverse legal experience, handling cases ranging from aviation to zoning.

“For 41 years, I devoted myself to problems faced by families and children in our state,” he said in his Journal Q&A.

Montoya has written, lobbied and obtained sponsors for over 30 statutory enactments in family law. He also understands crime victims from his service on the Crime Victims Reparation Commission.

His major professional accomplishments include being the lead author/editor of New Mexico Domestic Relations Law, chairing a Supreme Court Rules Committee that established rules for domestic relations and domestic violence cases, and co-chairing the Child Support Guidelines Commission that promulgated statutory child support guidelines.

He describes his judicial philosophy as conservative and says judges should rise above party politics.

“I will not read words in the law that are not there,” he says. “We are not a legislative body, nor should we be.”

Montoya has an impressive “AV Preeminent Rating” from Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings, reserved for an elite group of attorneys who have been rated as having very high ethical standards. He’s also been named “Best of the Bar” for family law by New Mexico Business Weekly.

Montoya faces Democratic incumbent Supreme Court Justice Julie Vargas, who was appointed in December 2020.

Supreme Court Justice, Position 2

Republican Kerry Morris

Kerry Morris

Morris brings a familiar refrain to another bid for the New Mexico Supreme Court: The all-Democrat “supremes” are young, too progressive and need a “voice of reason” to counter their liberal, activist impulses, he says.

Two years ago, Morris ran on a platform of bringing more balance to the high court. For a second successive election cycle, we agree the Supreme Court needs diversity in philosophy and thinking. Morris is part of the GOP slate of judicial candidates who are running on a platform of putting the law before politics.

The courts have become politicized, with judges legislating from the bench. He says the courts should not be determining matters that should be decided by lawmakers, such as the state Supreme Court’s surprise order in August that came on the heels of a new section of state law that authorizes law enforcement to obtain GPS ankle bracelet data without a warrant. The court said that, as a general rule, pretrial services records are confidential and should not be made part of any public record unless admitted in a court proceeding.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government was disappointed with the court’s determination, as is the Journal.

“I’m pretty wound up about this,” Morris told the Editorial Board. “The court is headed in a pretty progressive direction.”

Morris describes himself as a “peacemaker” who’s a problem-solver first and a litigator last. He’s a former prosecutor in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office. Over the course of his 41-year legal career, he has represented individuals, small businesses and state agencies in a wide variety of legal matters.

Morris faces Democratic incumbent Briana Zamora, who was appointed in July 2021.

Judge of the Court of Appeals, Position 1

Democratic incumbent Gerald Baca

Judge Gerald Baca

Baca, appointed to the Court of Appeals in April 2021 by the governor, says he has the most relevant experience for the job, having served as a trial court judge, a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, as well as practicing as a “small town attorney” in Las Vegas, N.M., handling property disputes, and divorce, probate and custody cases.

Baca has spent more than 10 years on the bench — nine as a district court judge in the Fourth Judicial District and more than a year as a judge on the New Mexico Court of Appeals. He has been appointed to judicial positions after being vetted by three different bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commissions and three different governors of both major parties. He has also served on Supreme Court committees dealing with the evaluation and revision of rules of procedure for the district courts.

He brings a rural perspective to a judicial system overrepresented by lawyers from the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor who often do not have frontline experience from a trial court perspective. Baca faces Republican Barbara Johnson and Libertarian Sophie Cooper.

Judge of the Court of Appeals, Position 2

Republican Gertrude Lee

Gertrude Lee

Lee has what the New Mexico appellate division needs — a fresh perspective on judicial matters.

If elected, Lee would become the first Navajo — and Native American — to serve on either the Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court.

Given New Mexico’s cultural history, she finds that “surprising.” We’d call it disappointing.

“I walk into the courts every single day and, when it comes to the judicial system, I’m the only Navajo person who’s walking around,” she said. “It’s important that we see more folks of a diverse background on the courts — not just cultural background, but diversity of thought and perspective.”

Diversity of thought and perspective means including more judges from rural backgrounds, as well as those with experience in criminal law. She says many appellate judges come from a civil law or family law background, with no experience working with law enforcement or victims of crime.

Lee is a former chief prosecutor for the Navajo Nation, where she oversaw 10 legal offices, and 40 lawyers and staff. She’s also worked as a prosecutor and deputy DA in McKinley County. She’s currently a senior trial attorney in the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office in Farmington, near her hometown of Kirtland.

Experience in both state and tribal courts is a good indication that Lee has the versatility to adapt quickly to the bench. She points out that any trial attorney has to think like an appellate judge to avoid reversible errors.

Lee has been endorsed by the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, as has Thomas Montoya and Kerry Morris. Lee faces Democratic incumbent Judge Katherine Wray, who was appointed in September 2021, and Libertarian Stephen Curtis.

•••

For judges facing retention, the Journal mirrors the recommendations of the New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC), which urges voters to retain one Supreme Court justice and seven Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court judges. The panel is silent on Court of Appeals Judge Jane B. Yohalem because of the short time she has been on the bench. Yohalem was elected a New Mexico Court of Appeals judge in November 2020. The Journal endorsed her that year.

All the judges up for retention are Democrats; Metropolitan Court hears only criminal cases involving misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors, and civil cases where the amount of the claim is $10,000 or less.

Under state law, judges up for retention must receive at least 57% voter approval to remain on the bench.

“The past two years have been very challenging for these judges. The Commission did take such factors as COVID-19, and the need to conduct hearings and trials remotely, into consideration, as well as their overall performance,” said JPEC chair Denise Torres.

This year, JPEC’s recommendations to voters statewide are to retain Supreme Court Justice Michael E. Vigil and the following judges on the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court: Rosie Lazcano Allred, Vidalia Chavez, Maria I. Dominguez, Jason Jaramillo, Brittany Maldonado Malott, Jill M. Martinez and Christine Rodriguez.

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.

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