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          Front Page




Court Confirms Judge for Post

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE— Former state District Judge J. Richard Brown was appointed Friday to a vacant District Court judgeship in southern New Mexico, ending a legal fight between Gov. Bill Richardson and a judicial nominating commission.
    The appointment, effective immediately, was made by New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward L. Chavez. Brown will have to run for election next year.
    It became the job of the chief justice to fill the vacancy after Richardson declined to make an appointment because of his dispute with the commission. The group submitted only one nominee for the judgeship to Richardson although the governor wanted at least two candidates to consider.
    The controversy began last year after District Judge Jay Forbes retired and five lawyers applied for the vacancy in the 5th Judicial District. The nominating commission recommended one candidate— Brown— to the governor in January.
    Richardson asked for additional nominees, but the commission decided not to provide more names.
    The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which in May ordered the commission to solicit additional applicants. However, the justices didn't force the commission to provide the governor with two or more nominees.
    The legal challenge became a test of gubernatorial power in the state's system for naming judges, which was established by a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 1988.
    Richardson has said he didn't object to Brown but was troubled that additional nominees weren't submitted who "reflect the diversity of this state."
    The governor had appointed Brown to a judgeship in 2006, and he served for about three months. He lost the position in the general election that year to former District Attorney Tom Rutledge of Carlsbad.
    Before his appointment that year, Brown had practiced law for 15 years as a trial lawyer and managing attorney in the state Public Defender's Office in Carlsbad.
    On Thursday, the Supreme Court denied a last-ditch request by Richardson to force the nominating commission to send him all the names it had considered for the vacant judicial seat in Carlsbad.
    The governor had asked the Supreme Court a day earlier for the names so he could make a "bona fide choice" in appointing someone to the post by Thursday's deadline.
    The court rejected the request without explanation in a one-page order issued Thursday, and Richardson said he would refrain from making an appointment.
    "Today's ruling by the court is a disservice to the judicial selection process," Richardson said in a statement. "It basically allows a group of people in a closed-door room to select a new judge without any outside scrutiny or accountability to the public. It leaves me with no choice."
    Under the constitution, the governor has 30 days to make an appointment after receiving final nominations from the commission. The chief justice makes the appointment from those nominations if the governor fails to act or misses the deadline.
    Before the current judicial selection system was adopted, New Mexico elected its judges in partisan contests like other state and local offices. The 1988 constitutional amendment established a system that combined a merit selection process with a partisan election requirement.
    The commission screens candidates and makes recommendations to the governor.
    A judge, once appointed, must run for partisan election to keep the position. Thereafter, a judge is subject to periodic nonpartisan retention elections, in which voters decide yes or no to retain the judge.



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