Gov. Susana Martinez is set to make an important nomination to replace a retiring State Supreme Court justice. The University of New Mexico’s Law School dean plays a key, but often misunderstood, constitutionally prescribed role in this process. That role and questions about the timeliness of making the applications available for public review have recently come under scrutiny.
As co-dean and designated chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission, I would like to explain this critically important yet complex process and the challenges it creates in our current instant access world.
When a judicial vacancy or upcoming judicial vacancy occurs, a commission is appointed in accordance with the State Constitution. Under the regulations, the chair selects the deadline by which applications must be filed, as well as the date on which the commission will meet to interview the applicants.
The practice, developed over the years, has been to try to provide a five-to-seven business day period between the closing of the applications and the commission meeting. The actual period may be shorter or longer depending upon the circumstances under which the vacancy arises.
During the period between the closing of the application period and the commission meeting, the coordinator of the judicial selection process must process the applications (get them digitized and redact non-public information), transmit them to the members of the commission and make them publicly available. No law or rule requires that the applications be publicly available immediately upon the closing of the application period.
While the application itself specifies that it will become a public document when filed, it does not specify a time line for public review. That falls under the Inspection of Public Records Act, which requires that covered information be made available immediately upon request or as soon as practicable but not more than 15 days after a request.
Since these are lengthy, primarily paper-based applications, it is a cumbersome process to convert them to an online format.
The law school is pleased to have such an important role in the state’s judicial system but its role in the Judicial Nominating Commissions is not a part of its primary legal education mission. No tuition dollars or state educational dollars are used to fund this public service. The state provides only a modicum of financial support for staff time and travel.
My administrative assistant serves as the coordinator of the judicial selection process and in that role as the records custodian.
That normal process was followed in this case.
Applications for the New Mexico Supreme Court vacancy were due by 5 p.m. on Oct. 9, a Friday. On Monday morning, my administrative assistant collected the applications and took them to the law school copying center for digitization.
On Tuesday, Oct. 13, they were made publicly available. Getting the applications digitized in one business day was no small feat.
As retiring Justice Richard C. Bosson commented, the commission should review the time frames for public access in the future. One possible solution could be to secure funding to convert the application process into a primarily electronic format.
I assure you that I, the law school and UNM support public access to the applications and will continue to work with the judiciary to improve on this important public service.