© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5-30-22
Voting for judges
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In New Mexico elections, the most confusing decisions we make involve voting for judges. The reason is simple but frustrating: judges cannot talk about their political views because their job involves individual specific cases, and they are supposed to approach each case without bias. They can only talk about their qualifications.
Here is a little information about the rules of voting for judges.
In New Mexico, even though judges are not supposed to be political, we have not decided to make judge elections nonpartisan. So we have a rather odd hybrid system.
Every judge must run once in a competitive partisan election.
Then, when the judge’s term of office is expiring, the judge must run in a “retention” election. There is no competitor. The voters choose either to retain the judge for a future term or not. Judges do not often lose retention elections.
Let’s back up a few steps. Typically, a vacancy in a judicial seat occurs when a judge decides to retire and a new judge is appointed to fill the vacancy.
The appointed judge has undergone some scrutiny prior to the appointment. Candidates for judicial appointment are reviewed by a judicial nominating commission, and approved names are sent to the governor.
When you see a competitive election for a judge, it usually means one candidate is already a judge by appointment and is running in that first-time competitive partisan election, and someone else who wants the job is challenging that judge.
When there is a contested race for a judgeship in the primary election, it usually means another person in the same party is challenging the appointed judge.
The winner of the primary might then be challenged again in the general election by a candidate from the other party. If the first challenger wins the primary, it is possible that none of the candidates in the general election will be a sitting judge. You can read about judge candidates in your district at vote411.org/nm.
When a judge is a candidate for retention, the judge’s name won’t show up on the primary ballot. It will be on the general election ballot in the form of a question – whether the judge shall be retained. A 57% vote in favor is required to retain the judge.
To help voters, New Mexico has the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, nmjpec.org. This commission evaluates of the performance of judges who are up for retention, based in part on responses from lawyers, court staff and others. The commission will give a simple Retain or Do Not Retain recommendation. It does not evaluate judges who are running in first-time competitive elections.
You don’t need this for the primary election. Save the information for November. On this website, nmjpec.org, you can click on your judicial district and you will find the evaluation information for individual judges by name.
New Mexico also has a Judicial Standards Commission, described as the ethics commission for the judicial branch of the state government. It is charged with investigating allegations of misconduct against New Mexico state, county, and municipal judges. This commission’s actions are not directly involved in elections.
A little more about judicial nominating commissions: There are 15 such commissions around the state. The appropriate commission meets within 30 days of an actual judicial vacancy, considers candidates who have applied to fill the vacancy, and sends recommendations to the governor.
You can read more about judicial nominating commissions at supremecourt.nmcourts.gov/supreme-court/judicial-nominating-commission and at lawschool.unm.edu/judsel/index.html.
If you think this is pretty confusing, so do I. Some day legislators might take the plunge, pass legislation to make judicial elections nonpartisan and seek the approval of us voters as a state constitutional amendment. That would likely be a great relief for dozens of judges.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.