District Judge Judith Nakamura’s cellphone began buzzing within minutes of the announcement by Gov. Susana Martinez of Nakamura’s appointment to the New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Richard C. Bosson.
It has been a whirlwind few weeks for the Albuquerque jurist, with the funeral of police officer Daniel Webster on Nakamura’s 55th birthday, issues with the health of her father and a packed trial calendar that required her to give a jury an extra-long break Tuesday so she could meet with the governor for her official interview.
Nakamura said minutes after her appointment that, over lunch with the governor, the two had a “broad, wide-ranging” discussion on topics involving the judiciary and the criminal justice system.
Salaries. Caseloads. A proposed constitutional amendment that would give judges more latitude to keep criminal defendants in custody before trial. The controversial case management rule from the state Supreme Court that puts cases in the 2nd Judicial District on an expedited timeline, which has led to numerous dismissals because prosecutors and police can’t meet them in many cases. The court said earlier this week that it is considering changes to the rule in view of the problems.
“It was very focused on what the judiciary needs,” Nakamura said of her meeting with Martinez, a former district attorney in Las Cruces. “She asked, ‘What do we need to do to improve the criminal justice system in New Mexico?’ To me, it’s hard to talk about the needs of the judiciary without talking about the other needs, like DAs (prosecutors) and PDs (public defenders) … I walked away clear that she wanted to help.”
Nakamura said she’s excited about her appointment, which the governor made effective immediately, but won’t be official until Nakamura takes the oath of office. And she doesn’t know when that will be.
Once it is official, it will mark the first time in state history that a majority of the Supreme Court justices will be women.
The governor’s announcement focused on Nakamura’s leadership – she was chief judge at Metropolitan Court for more than a decade – and is “an advocate for public safety (with) a proven track record of working to keep our families safe.”
Nakamura has been on the bench for 17 years, the last two on the District Court criminal division. She has a reputation as a tough sentencer, but as a thorough and fair jurist.
Nakamura was elected to the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court in 1998 and served as its chief judge from 2002 until 2013. She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and UNM School of Law, a onetime small-business owner and an avid balloonist who serves on the International Balloon Fiesta board.
In 1983, she served as political director for the state Republican Party’s get-out-the vote effort and later worked for the state Land Office.
One of the first things she will have to turn her attention to is a competitive, partisan race in 2016. Nakamura said District Judge Gary Clingman of Hobbs has told her he decided not run against her in the GOP primary, but she will face off against the Democratic primary winner in the general election.
While she polled 57 percent to 43 percent in her last election, it is a statewide race, and she told Martinez in the interview she would need the governor’s assistance.
In the year until the election, Nakamura said she hopes to be able to put her administrative experience in Metro Court to good use. A significant proportion of the Supreme Court’s work involves oversight of the state’s lower courts, including those like Magistrate Court, where the judges are not required to be lawyers.
Nakamura said she knows her new colleagues and has good relationships with them all. Although there will be clear philosophical differences, she said, “we’re going to be respectful.”
The Republican governor had four finalists submitted to her by the Judicial Nomination Commission: Nakamura and Clingman, both Republicans, and Court of Appeals Judges Michael Vigil and Linda Vanzi, both Democrats.