SANTA FE – The shape of the 2016 Supreme Court race began to take shape Monday as a judicial nominating commission voted to send four names to the governor for the vacancy that will exist Nov. 1 and three of those said they will run regardless of whether they get the appointment.
Court of Appeals Judges Linda Vanzi and Michael Vigil, who is serving a term as chief judge, made the short list, as did District Court Judges Judith Nakamura of the 2nd Judicial District in Bernalillo County and Gary Clingman of the 5th Judicial District, who sits in Lovington.
Vanzi and Vigil, both Democrats, told commissioners during questioning that they plan to run in the primary. Clingman said he started contacting Republican county chairs in June when he learned of the likely vacancy.
Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson, whose retirement creates the vacancy, sat on the appellate nominating commission as the designated representative of the high court.
One of his colleagues had compared it to “going to your own wake,” Bosson said during a break.
The 17-member bipartisan commission interviewed a total of eight applicants, including two Santa Fe attorneys, the elected district attorney in the 12th Judicial District, and an Albuquerque attorney who served a year on the district court bench.
In questioning, commissioners often honed in on the less-known but important role of the Supreme Court in overseeing the lower courts through rule-making, handling disciplinary cases against both lawyers and judges, and other administrative duties.
Vanzi, a former district judge, won praise from a commissioner for the volume of her speaking engagements and from another for the range of her experience as small-business owner and environmental health and safety inspector. Vanzi said she would welcome the opportunity to work with committees to improve the court system statewide.
Another commissioner noted that one of Nakamura’s backers had praised her administrative skills as the chief judge in Albuquerque Metropolitan Court for over a decade. Nakamura said she would welcome the research and policy aspects of the high court without shirking the other aspects of the job. The local rule under which 2nd District judges are now working has “too many ‘shalls,’ ” Nakamura said. It has taken away discretion judges should have, though it has speeded up old dockets, she said.
Clingman, going into his 19th year as a district judge in southeastern New Mexico, was asked how he would transition from the “lone wolf” style of district judges to the distinctly collaborative style of the five-member Supreme Court.
“Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth,” he said. “It’s been useful to be able to go down the hall and sit down with a colleague to … consider another point of view.” Clingman said it has been difficult to get appellate judges from places other than Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and that rural areas of the state have a completely different experience from those in the most populous areas.
Vigil, a former trial lawyer who took Bosson’s place on the appeals court when Bosson became a justice, promised to serve with collegiality and integrity when asked the same question about collaboration. An open and civil exchange, he said, can lead a judge to re-evaluate his position, and a collegial atmosphere can result in a better opinion.