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Governor demands more choices for judicial vacancy

Barry Massey

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, like her Democratic predecessor, wants a choice of candidates when it comes to appointing judges and she's flexing her gubernatorial power to make her point.

Martinez has asked an independent judicial nominating commission to go back to work and send her more than one candidate for a judicial vacancy in southern New Mexico. Former Gov. Bill Richardson took a similar approach in 2007, and the dispute ended up before the state Supreme Court. Richardson, however, never got the extra judicial candidates he sought.

In New Mexico, the governor appoints district judges from candidates recommended by a bipartisan nominating commission, which is made up of judges, lawyers and members of the public who are not lawyers. Unlike many boards and commissions, the governor names only a few members of a nominating commission. Judges, legislative leaders and a statewide organization of lawyers select most members.

A screening commission last month interviewed four applicants for a judgeship in the 6th Judicial District that covers Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties but recommended only one person _ Deming lawyer Jennifer DeLaney, a Democrat. All of the applicants are running for the judgeship in this year's elections _ two Democrats and two Republicans.

Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said Martinez's request for more nominees "has nothing to do with the particular applicant who was submitted."

"The governor simply wants to uphold the separate constitutional duties assigned to the judicial nominating commission and the governor, respectively. State law affords her the opportunity to fill the vacancy as opposed to the judicial nominating commission, in effect, making the appointment," Darnell said in a statement.

The commission is to meet on May 1 to consider the governor's request, but there's no guarantee the panel will send the governor additional names.

"If we have more people applying, then maybe," said Brenda Villegas, a commission member from Deming. She said DeLaney was the most qualified of the original applicants.

"I just hope the governor reconsiders and accepts it if we send up the same name, if we don't find other candidates," said Villegas.

Commission member Fred Sherman, a Deming lawyer, said additional applicants are being solicited, but the commission wasn't trying to pick a fight with Martinez by initially recommending only one candidate.

"What we want is the best, and judges should be that," said Sherman. "If we had 10 people that were qualified and would be the kind of judges that we would want, you would have 10 people going up to her."

Since taking off last year, Martinez has appointed six district judges and there are three vacancies to be filled, including the one in the 6th Judicial District. That vacancy was created by the retirement in February of District Judge Gary Jeffreys, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Gary Johnson and served on the court for 15 years.

Whoever is appointed to the vacancy could end up with a short tenure because the winner of the general election will become judge. Because of that, some lawyers may not be interested in applying for the vacancy, Sherman said.

In 2007, Richardson came up empty handed when a commission declined to recommend additional candidates for a vacant judgeship in Carlsbad. The dispute went to the Supreme Court, which ordered the commission to solicit additional applicants. But in a setback for Richardson and his successors, the justices didn't require the commission to provide more nominees to a governor. Instead, the court directed the commission to make a "good faith effort" to submit at least two names for consideration.

When the commission stuck with its original nominee, Richardson declined to make an appointment. It then fell to the chief justice of the Supreme Court to fill the judgeship and he picked the individual recommended by the commission _ a former district judge who Richardson had previously appointed but who lost in an election. District Judge J. Richard Brown continues to serve on the 5th Judicial District court.

New Mexico's system for naming judges was established by a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 1988 and combines a merit selection process with a partisan election requirement. Before the current system, New Mexico elected its judges in partisan contests like other state and local offices.

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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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

The Associated Press