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Complaint filed over unsponsored campaign signs

Campaign signs that have popped up around Corrales accusing a judge up for retention of being “anti-women” and “anti-family” have prompted one formal complaint to the Secretary of State’s Office because they are unsponsored attack ads.

The signs, however, are likely to stay up because the state Attorney General’s Office said in a 1997 opinion said that prohibiting such unsponsored advertisements was “unConstitutional and unenforceable” – citing a state Supreme Court precedent.

The opinion is in contrast to the Secretary of State’s Office election handbook that says publishing election materials, including “handbills, petitions, circulars or similar written material” without a sponsor is unlawful, and a crime.

One of the campaign signs in Corrales that are attacking a judge who is up for retention.

One of the campaign signs in Corrales that are attacking a judge who is up for retention.

AG spokeswoman Lynn Southard said the opinion has not been revisited since 1997.

The signs warn voters not to retain District Judge John Davis, who said it was “unsettling” when he first noticed them while driving down a road.

The judge, whose office is in Sandoval County and handles family court cases for the Thirteenth Judicial District, said the signs are “all over.” He strongly disputes the attack and said it is inevitable for any judge to make enemies.

Corrales resident Mary Ellen Capek filed a formal complaint with the Secretary of State’s office about the signs, because they have no sponsor. She said she filed the complaint because she, as a self-described feminist, initially considered sharing the message from the signs before deciding to do a little more digging.

” … Whoever it is clearly has paid a lot of money,” she said.

Capek, who said she has no connection to the judge, said she was disappointed to see the anonymous sign this close to the election and that people should visit the website that evaluate judges rather than pay attention to anonymous attacks.

The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recommended that Davis be retained after evaluating his performance through courtroom observations, anonymous surveys and an interview with the judge. More than 85 percent of attorneys recommended he be retained, as did 81 percent of court staff and 65 percent of resource staff, which includes law enforcement, jurors, probation officers and others.

The Supreme Court ruling cited by the AG’s Office was from 1995, and the court decided unsponsored “pamphleteering” was a reasonable and valuable way to get a message across without inviting retaliation.

“… Anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent,” the court said in its majority opinion. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

Even though the Secretary of State’s election handbook still calls such anonymous signs illegal, it is unenforceable, Secretary of State spokesman Kenneth Ortiz. The wording cannot be removed without a legislative act, adding that they have supported failed legislation in recent years that would “clean up those provisions and bring them into compliance with case law.”

A Facebook page called “Help Us Get Justice and Peace in Sandoval County” shared photos of the campaign signs last week with 133 followers. The page is aimed at getting support for Elizabeth Caldwell, a woman who claims she was unfairly treated by law enforcement, the Children Youth and Families Department, the District Attorney’s Office and Judge Davis in a recent family court dispute.

Caldwell, reached by phone Wednesday, said she did not buy nor post the signs. She said she agreed that whoever bought them should put their name on the materials. She said she posted pictures of them on the social media site in hopes their owner would come forward and join her cause.

“I just wanted to share them because they share the same view that I do,” she said, adding that she would prefer if the person who made or bought the signs would identify themselves.

Davis said he first saw the signs in the first week of October and said he expects that the signs will have at least some effect on his retention efforts.