To vet: to make a careful and critical examination (of something).
– Oxford Dictionaries
Each election year when judicial candidates are on the ballot, people will approach me and ask, “I don’t know any of these judges. Who should I vote for?”
This is somewhat surprising. New Mexico judges, as a group, are some of the most thoroughly vetted public servants in the state.
I began practicing law in 1983. Even 30 years ago, judges were being evaluated and the information was being made available to voters.
Today, however, it is much easier to access information regarding New Mexico’s judiciary. The evaluation process has become much more expansive in scope and content. And disclosure of this information to voters has become a high priority for media and watchdog groups.
Consider my own experience as a judge.
I applied for a vacancy on the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court in 2003. I had to submit a lengthy written application to the New Mexico Judicial Selection Committee. A bipartisan, 17-member committee then interviewed me about both my professional and personal life.
The Judicial Selection Committee ultimately recommended four lawyers, including me, to the governor, who then appointed me to the bench in April 2003.
Immediately, I had to gear up for a contested election in 2004. Any eligible attorney could run against me. In fact, I had opposition in both the primary and general election.
And the voters had the final say in whether to keep me on the bench or to vote in some other candidate.
Between May of 2003 and November of 2004, I spoke to numerous neighborhood associations. I spoke to civic, law enforcement and professional organizations.
Both the Albuquerque Journal and Tribune editorial boards interviewed me regarding my candidacy. Political information groups, such as the League of Women Voters, sent me questionnaires to fill out and return.
I participated in a public debate forum sponsored by the Albuquerque Bar Association. I did the best I could to make contact with voters.
And in an area as big as Bernalillo County, that was no easy feat.
I prevailed in my 2004 contested election, and then it was on to retention elections.
As required by law, I stood for retention in 2006, 2010 and most recently, 2014. To retain my office I had to receive at least a 57 percent “yes” vote from all those who voted in Bernalillo County in those particular elections.
I was retained in all three retention elections.
How did I make contact with voters in these retention elections? Fortunately for me and voters, information was, and still is today, made available by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC).
JPEC solicits responses from attorneys, law enforcement officers, court staff and jurors who have had interactions with the judges up for retention. These individuals are asked to evaluate judges in numerous categories, such as fairness, knowledge of the law, integrity and demeanor. JPEC collects and summarizes this data and then provides it to the judges.
Those providing responses do so anonymously. Anonymity allows those responding to JPEC to be quite candid.
And I am a better judge today because of this anonymous process. I am able to see myself through the eyes of the people who come into my courtroom.
JPEC conducts interim evaluations (mid-way through judges’ current terms) to explain to each judge his or her strengths and weaknesses. Each judge is expected to improve in areas of weak performance.
Judges next meet with JPEC for a final evaluation shortly before the retention elections. JPEC then publishes for voters its final recommendations as to whether to retain each judge up for retention. In fact, all recommendations are available for viewing on JPEC’s website: www.nmjpec.org.
The JPEC process is serious business and it can mean the end of a judicial career for any judge who does not take it seriously.
In addition to the JPEC evaluation process, judges are also subject to daily scrutiny. Anyone may come and observe a judge “in action.”
Courtrooms are public places. All hearings, trials and other court proceedings, with limited exception, are conducted in public. Too, all court files are available for public inspection. Any decision I make is recorded and entered into the public record.
The next time you vote for a judicial candidate in a contested election, or vote to retain a judge, you can do so with confidence. All the information you need is at your fingertips.
Judge Daniel E. Ramczyk is a Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court judge. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.