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OUR VIEW: Judicial selection process leaves much to be desired

To say the political system in New Mexico can be peculiar probably isn’t news to anyone.

But the recent developments concerning the appointment of a new district judge in Sandoval County give one pause to think there’s got to be a better way.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointee, Gina Manfredi, should be proud of becoming the first woman to serve as a district judge in Sandoval County and is deserving of the community’s congratulations, particularly after having served the City of Rio Rancho the past seven years as an assistant city attorney.

But her term, which could start early next month, will be short.

Three days after Democrat Manfredi’s appointment was announced, members of her party’s state central committee elected, rather than her, Bernalillo attorney Chris Pérez to be the candidate for the judgeship in the November general election. She mustered only one vote of the 35 votes cast.

We have no reason to doubt Pérez’s credentials and have the utmost respect for his family. Perez’s father is retired 13th Judicial District Judge George Pérez.

We also realize that the law provides for exactly what the central committee opted to do. The Republican Party could select its nominee on Monday.

The system, however, clearly leaves much to be desired.

We suspect among the first to feel the impact of the central committee’s decision, other than Manfredi herself, will be folks who are dealing with the court now. Manfredi is slated to hear family law cases currently heard by Judge John Davis. What’s happened recently could put some families in the position of having to deal with three judges in the span of five months: Davis, Manfredi and her successor.

To her credit, Manfredi said she intends to serve her term, brief as it is. We’re not certain what her plans are beyond that, but it’s a shame she’s faced with giving up a job she appeared to perform very well for the city.

Though the new judgeship was approved in the 30-day legislative session this year, the process of filling the position began after the March date for most candidates, including those seeking a district judgeship, to file for the primary election. That being the case, a judicial nominating commission accepted applications and conducted interviews with 11 people before sending three names to the governor for consideration.

Manfredi was among the three. Pérez conceded he didn’t even throw his hat into the ring for the job when the commission asked for applications, thinking there was little chance Martinez would appoint someone from the opposing party.

It’s all hindsight now, of course, but perhaps the next time the Legislature creates a judicial position, it should ensure the appointment process is put on a faster track — perhaps by attaching an emergency clause — that would at least give political parties the opportunity to field candidates for the primary.

But that leaves open the question of the role of the bipartisan nominating commission. Its vetting of candidates, without question, is a valuable procedure to ensure a position is filled by the best-qualified individual. But what value is its time and where is its place in the selection process if its recommendations are, in effect, set aside by a political party?

We don’t have the answers, but somehow it doesn’t seem fair for Manfredi or, for that matter, anyone appointed to a judicial position who’s been evaluated by the commission, to accept the job and then not be given the chance to run for election to serve a full term because of a party’s preferences.