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Judges Facing Restrictions On Political Activity

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After a tough year for the state’s judiciary, including bribery charges against a Las Cruces judge, the political activities of New Mexico’s jurists will be sharply curtailed under a new Code of Judicial Conduct that takes effect Jan. 1.

Under the code, issued by the state Supreme Court, judges not involved in partisan elections will be prohibited from:

• Making contributions to political parties, or political organizations, including buying tickets for political fundraising dinners and other events.

• Making campaign contributions to political candidates.

• Speaking publicly in favor of or in opposition to any ballot measure that does not involve the legal system.

Some parts of the new code restate other prohibitions that have been in place for decades, such as judges not being allowed to hold office in a political organization, solicit contributions for political candidates or endorse political candidates.

“The new code reflects the reality of the system in which judges must compete politically in partisan elections, but for the most part judges should stay out of politics,” said Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson.

Judges running in partisan elections can contribute to a political party in that election cycle, under the new rules, but cannot contribute to other candidates.

There is no family exemption, meaning judges can’t contribute to or endorse family members running for public office.

Under the old code, contributions to political parties were specifically allowed and candidate contributions were not banned.

“It is based on the belief that judges not currently running for office should steer clear of politics,” said Albuquerque attorney David Stout, who chaired the committee rewriting the code.

The new code, which lays out how judicial candidates facing election must run their campaigns, is similar to restrictions on federal judges.

Bosson said the rewrite of the code has been in the works for almost three years and is based on a model developed by the American Bar Association in 2007.

But the final rules were issued while District Judge Mike Murphy of Las Cruces faces pending felony charges of soliciting bribes and intimidating a witness.

“While it does not solve all the issues in our judicial system, I believe this is a right step in taking out conflicts of interests and in reforming judicial standards in New Mexico,” state Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales said in a statement. “This is an important step forward in reforming the entire judicial system.”

The state Republican Party had no comment.

Murphy case

A grand jury indicted Murphy on May 13 on charges of bribery, criminal solicitation and witness intimidation.

The case sprang from a 2007 conversation in which Murphy allegedly told a lawyer considering seeking a judgeship that she needed to make payments, or political contributions, to a local Democratic Party activist to ensure an appointment by the governor.

Murphy’s trial is on hold, while an appeal on the dismissal of a misdemeanor charge is considered by the state Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, the Journal reported that the agency policing judges throughout the state – the Judicial Standards Commission – is one of the busiest in the country.

During the past few years, the state Supreme Court has used increasingly tough language in rulings sanctioning judges for misbehavior on and off the bench.

Public confidence

The commentary from the committee writing the new rules explained the need to tighten the rules, saying, “Public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary is eroded if judges or judicial candidates are perceived to be subject to political influence.”

In New Mexico’s hybrid merit-selection system, names of judicial hopefuls are put forward by a nominating commission after screening, and the governor appoints them. They then face one partisan election, and subsequently face only nonpartisan retention elections. New judges running in partisan elections are allowed to buy tickets for political dinners and contribute to political organizations.

Under the new code, if a judicial candidate intends to raise more than $1,000 for an election, the candidate will have to form a committee that seeks and handles contributions to the judicial campaign.

The judicial candidate will be prohibited from inquiring about who has made contributions. Any unspent funds must be returned on a pro rata basis to contributors or donated to a charity.

The committee commentary discourages judges not up for election from attending any political event, whether or not it involves fundraising.

“Noncandidates may attend political events but must be conscious that a judge may abuse the prestige of judicial office by being present at the event and should consider whether the interests of the judiciary would be best-served by not attending,” the commentary says.

The prohibition on ticket purchases for political fundraisers will not extend to magistrate, municipal and probate judges.

“These judges face partisan elections every four years,” said another committee member, Court of Appeals Judge James J. Wechsler . “The committee took this into account.”

The term “political organization” refers to a political party, a group affiliated with a political party or candidate for public office, or an entity whose principal purpose is to advocate for or against political candidates or parties in connection with elections for public office.

The new code encourages judges to participate in judicial and law-related activities, as did the old one, and supports participating by judges nonpolitical community activities like charitable or religious organizations.

“The new code reflects an evolution of the process of selecting judges,” Bosson said. “Based on the system we have, it seems to us, there is a bargain with the public that approved the system in the 1980s that sitting judges stay out of political activity. It is something to aspire too, an ideal.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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