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Judge sues over nomination practice

SANTA FE – A newly appointed judge filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging New Mexico’s system of allowing political parties to select the general-election nominees in certain state judicial races.

District Judge Gina Manfredi in Sandoval County asked the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe to place her on the ballot rather than Bernalillo lawyer Christopher Perez.

The lawsuit contends that the state constitution’s system of merit selection for appointing judges should override a statute allowing political parties to pick nominees when a judicial opening occurs too late for candidates to run in the June primary election.

“The conflict created between these two selection procedures further politicizes the judicial selection process, dilutes the New Mexico Constitution, and shifts the focus of the judicial nomination from merit to political support garnered at the state central committee meeting,” the lawsuit says.

The state Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge filed last month by Manfredi, a Democrat who was appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez last month to a newly created judgeship in the 13th Judicial District.

Three days after Manfredi’s appointment, the Democratic Party’s state central committee selected Perez to appear on the ballot in the November general election rather than Manfredi. Unless a court intervenes, Manfredi will serve only a few months until the election winner takes office.

A bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commission screened applicants for the new 13th Judicial District judgeship in Sandoval County and recommended Manfredi for possible appointment by the governor. The commission was made up of judges, lawyers and members of the public.

The Legislature created the new judgeship this year, but the position became effective after the deadline for candidates to file in the primary election. That cleared the way for the parties to determine the lineup of candidates in November.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1988 creating the nominating commission process for selecting judges. Once appointed by the governor, judges must run in the next partisan election if they want to stay on the bench. If elected, a judge is later subject to periodic nonpartisan elections in which voters decide whether to retain them.

The state Democratic Party was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, and party Chairman Sam Bregman said he expected the District Court to dismiss Manfredi’s lawsuit. “We’ve been doing this now for several years. I don’t see her argument holding any water,” said Bregman, an Albuquerque lawyer.

The Republican Party has selected Cheryl Johnston, a prosecutor from Corrales, as its nominee for the judgeship.

Manfredi has been an assistant city attorney in Rio Rancho since 2007.